Games

The Real Future of VR Probably Isn't at Your Computer, It's at the Mall

It may not be the Holodeck, but it's surprising how much The VOID feels like it.

by Rich Monahan
Aug 17 2018, 5:28pm

Photos and art courtesy of The Void

The Glendale Galleria shopping mall is located in Glendale, California, but if you happened to wake up from a coma inside of it, you’d be forgiven for not knowing if you were standing in Los Angeles County, or my hometown, or yours, as it shares that soothing sameness that makes all American malls feel like embassies for people from suburbia. In fact, it likely looks exactly like the one you are currently picturing in your head: a white, two-floor atrium softly daylit by massive skylights. There’s the Aéropostale. There’s the Spencer’s Gifts.

Which is why it’s all the more baffling that, if you take a right out of the Galleria food court and a left when you hit JC Penney, you’ll find this cookie-cutter building also happens to be home to one of the most groundbreaking gaming experiences to come along in years.

Welcome to The VOID, an odd, lobby-like storefront offering a Star Wars-themed interactive experience so impressive, my first thought upon completing it was “Holy shit. The future happened, and no one told me.”

Dubbed “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” and the result of a collaboration between the “hyper-reality” studio The VOID and ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm’s immersive entertainment division, the experience mashes up virtual reality with elements of escape rooms and laser tag.

Whereas many VR experiences leave you tethered to your seat or some giant rig, The VOID outfits you with a headset and haptic vest, then sends you wandering through an actual physical space of empty rooms and corridors. The audio and visual inside of your helmet—coupled with real-world environmental effects and physical props you must interact with—essentially interweave the VR world with the tactile one, creating a stunningly immersive experience. While a typical gaming or VR session makes you aware of its own rules and parameters pretty quickly, The VOID succeeds in playing against what your brain assumes are the hard and fast limitations of the virtual experience. The tagline might as well be, “Go ahead, reach out and touch it. It’s really there.”

Part of the magic lies in how expertly each new element is rolled out. At the start, the staff puts you and up to three friends in your gear, leads you into a small gray room, and instructs you to pull down your visor.

From there, the Unreal 4 Engine-powered visuals finds you in a virtual gray room much like the one you are actually standing in, but now you and your friends are skinned in stormtrooper armor. You look down to realize your new virtual hands mimic exactly your real ones, right on down to the individual finger movements. Make the peace sign, wiggle your thumbs, high five your friend, do whatever: The game is so well-rendered in real time, all of these physical motions correspond to what you are seeing in the virtual world.

Then the drab gray walls suddenly transform into the intricately detailed interior of a spaceship, which hums to life with a virtual chirping R2 unit and flight crew, and you are officially transported into the Star Wars universe.

You get your bearings just in time to realize your ship is landing beside an Imperial base on the lava planet Mustafar, and the moment you step out of the ship and onto a metal grate floating above a sea of lava, you are swept up into one of the experience’s many “holy shit” moments: A slight sense of vertigo kicks in. The stench of sulfur hits your nose, you feel the heat on your skin—you literally experience both sensations, there is some sort of mechanism in the room surprising you with the actual scent and hot air—and you steady yourself as you “ride” this floating platform high over the planet’s fiery surface, marveling at how far you can see in every direction.

There is, of course, the part of your brain that knows you are still standing inside a largely empty facility which shares a wall with The Gap, but the subtle trickery and sheer scope of what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling make it almost impossible to not feel awed by the whole affair. The VOID is exhilarating. It is mind-blowing. It is the closest thing we have to the Danger Room or Holodeck come to life.

And we haven’t even gotten to the part where you find some blasters and fuck shit up.

You will shoot your way out of an Imperial base. You will feel enemy fire land with a thud in your chest. You will dive behind cover to hold off encroaching Stormtroopers, buying time while your buddy frantically races to solve the puzzle that unlocks the next door.

And after the experience, you will likely get caught up in wondering what else can be achieved with this technology. Wait, what about a bank heist scenario? Or zombies? Or Portal? Will we ride Daenerys’ dragons? Can a motherfucker web-sling? Seriously, what’s next?

Speaking into The VOID

Who better to ask than Curtis Hickman, The VOID’s Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer. Hickman’s background as an illusionist and Visual Effects Producer has helped shape all the existing VOID experiences, as well as those on the way. Because Glendale is just one of seven VOID locations currently operating, with nine more locations recently announced, each offering at least one of three titles: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, 2016’s Ghostbusters: Dimensions, and Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment.

[This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity]

I’ve done the Star Wars experience several times, but almost as fun is spending an hour afterwards spitballing what else might be possible in The VOID. How much of the work you and your team do is that sort of daydreaming and experimenting?

Hickman: A lot of my time is doing just that. You know, we sit around and talk about, "How could we do stairs in The VOID? Or at least make it feel like you are doing stairs in the VOID? How could we get away with making people feeling like they're floating? What might that be?”

More than half of our experiments get thrown out, but every now and then hit on something where we’re like "Yeah, that’s amazing, let's put that in our next experience."

As far as those experiences go, is there one that you haven’t yet cracked, where you’re like “Oh, someday, I want to achieve X in The VOID.”

Hickman: Well, you know, Nicodemus [The VOID’s brand new original horror experience, which premiered in Vegas this summer] was one of those for me. There were a lot of little hidden tricks that I've been meaning to do for a really long time that we got to play with and experiment with in there. To really play with space and different forms of redirection, kind of fool the senses and make you believe that you're in this really big creepy space, as well as pull off a couple fun magic tricks.

But there's a lot of other fun stuff out there. I’m fascinated by doing more open-world stuff.

Awesome, do you envision that as a more open space, or a longer game time?

Hickman: I mean, yeah, all of the above. We do experiments with how to reuse space and how to make it seem even bigger than it is. A lot of people have said "Hey, we'd like longer experiences" and I take that as a compliment, so we work very hard trying to extend them.

But I also like the idea of more freedom in where you're going to go, so it feels less like an attraction where you're on rails and more like a world where you can say "Okay, am I going to fight my way through the front door or sneak my way in the back door?” And that choice reflects the reality as it unfolds in front of you. Setting those kind of decisions in The VOID while keeping up the throughput, making it safe and commercially viable, those are the things I'm really focused on.

Have you tried anything where you're like, “Oh, you know what? The public’s not ready for that. That's too scary or intense.”

Hickman: There's definitely things we haven't done for safety’s sake or, honestly, just because when it comes to the public understanding of all the things that are possible, it's an education and a process. Every experience has to teach people how to be in The VOID before they can really get into it.

It's a lot to ask of somebody when they're inside to solve complex problems, because it's a bit of sensory overload. In the future, as people become more accustomed to this form of entertainment and experience design, we’ll be able to do things that are a little more challenging.

Can you talk about what those more challenging scenarios could be?

Hickman: Doing things with dilation and playing with relativity, where you're not that far from me but you're actually, in some sort of Escher-like way, walking in a different time, out of phase with me. And we're solving problems out of time with each other and using sort of the relativistics of your reality vs. my reality to solve problems.

Do you mind if we do a quick lightning round? I’ll say “Hey, have you experimented with X?” and you can say yes, no, or pass.

Hickman: [chuckles] Ok. Yeah, we'll see how this goes.

Flying, Superman-style.

Hickman: Um...no.

Melee combat.

Hickman: Yes, we've experimented with that.

Vehicles.

Hickman: Yes, we've experimented with that.

This is a long shot, but it's the first thing I thought of: Web-slinging? Like Spider-Man?

Hickman: Web-slinging? Um, that's kind of...specific. (laughs) I don't know if we tried anything quite like that, like grappling hooks or something. In The VOID, the goal is to make it as real as possible, so swinging around on vines or webs or grappling hooks or whatever, I would honestly want to do it. I would want to set up an arena and have ropes on a track and really go for it.

Wire work, trampolines, harnesses?

Hickman: We've definitely considered those things. Safety is always a big factor here, and that could take a lot of R&D and effort to make that possible, but it is something we played with a little bit and definitely chatted a lot about. I do think there's a future there.

How does your illusionist background inform or help evolve the work that you do at The VOID?

Hickman: When I was young, I was introduced to the concept of magic theory by a magic mentor of mine, who was adamant that I needed to study it. It wasn't interesting to me, of course, as a 14-year-old kid. You know, I wanted to learn tricks to fool my friends, and he's like "Oh no, you've got to read these old books.” But I did, and it ended up making a huge impact on my life, because it's that foundational theory that has allowed me to apply magic to this medium and others.

There's only three ways you can make something disappear. You can move the object, you can hide the object, or it was never there to begin with. When you understand that, then you know in virtual reality, there's only three ways you can make something or someone disappear. So you get to play with the visuals of VR and the practical theories of magic to create some really amazing moments.

What is the holy grail for you? Is there a dream project by way of a certain intellectual property or type of story?

Hickman: To be honest, anytime someone in the very beginning asked “What's your dream project?” I would always immediately say Star Wars. So it's funny that it was just the second thing that we did. I'll always be grateful to the Walt Disney Company, Lucasfilm, and ILMxLAB for believing in The VOID.

There's definitely a lot of other stories that I love and hope we get to do. I've learned not to talk about them anymore, because I think people get really speculative when when I do, but it's all the same stuff. It's all the worlds people talk about visiting. People build giant theme parks of these worlds to try and give people the experience of being inside of them, but in my opinion, the best way to experience them is inside The VOID. We've got some amazing stuff coming up, and I think the world is going to be really excited about the new experiences that are just around the corner.

You have locations in Disneyland, Dubai, London, at Madame Tussaud’s in New York. So how did The VOID end up at the mall in Glendale?

Hickman: [laughs] Well, we're trying to push The VOID out and get it in the hands of everyone. The goal was not just to make The VOID exclusive to some of these high-end super busy locations, but to do experimental testing in places down the street from you.

You wake up in the morning and you have a decision: I can go to a movie tonight, or I can go live one at The VOID. What's the decision you are going to make? What might that look like? Glendale, to me, is that.

In 5 years: where's The VOID? What are you working on?

Hickman: It gets much more accessible to everyone. That's definitely what we're working toward, getting The VOID in more locations.

The technology, of course, is going to improve dramatically. We work with the big players in the VR industry to continuously advance our hardware, as well as the experience designs, graphics, and everything else: this combination of the technical with the physical, theoretical, and psychological. As those fields advance, we do everything we can to come along with it.

Honestly, five years from now can't get here soon enough.

photo by author

A Future for VR

Upon wrapping up a session in The VOID and stepping back into the belly of the Glendale Galleria, it’s tough not to share Curtis’ excitement for the future. Each time I’ve completed the Star Wars experience, my party and I have just sort of stood around the mall grinning, talking through our favorite parts. Someone invariably says “I wish there was another one, I would walk back in and do it immediately” (on that front, good news for VOID enthusiasts near Glendale: all three VOID experiences will be offered on select dates throughout August).

And as ordinary mall shoppers walk past, you can’t help but feel like you’re in on some sort of secret: Do any of these people even know what happens inside that place? Those kids over there would go apeshit for The VOID, right?

Which does raise the question, is the public at large ready to embrace this technology? After 25 years or so of people making spectacularly misguided predictions about The Future of Virtual Reality, I certainly don’t intend to wager a guess. And yet, with The VOID preparing to roll out to more and more everyday locations in the next few months, it certainly feels like we’re finally about to find out.