Getting virtual reality right is hard, as countless attempts over the past few decades to create it can attest too. More often than not the hardware is overpriced, underpowered and uncomfortable, which is why every attempt at commercial VR has failed.
Now another wave of companies are attempting to perfect this difficult technology. Oculus, Samsung and HTC are on the verge of releasing their first VR sets. But there’s another company in the game with a radically different approach to the concept; The Void.
Teased for months and finally debuted in mid-May, the trailer for the shared VR experience center blew people away and raised suspicion. Experienced gamers counselled skepticism, while others couldn’t help but fall for the idea of a wireless, cooperative and competitive experience with real environments. On top of that it promises full body tracking, weapon tracking and haptic feedback, thanks to custom created headsets, body tracking suits and camera rigs.
To put it lightly, The Void seems incredibly ambitious. Other developments by industry stand-outs like Oculus don’t even come close to this sort of comprehensive set-up, so that when we sat down for a digital interview with the founders of the Void project, we brought more than a pinch of salt with us.
The three musketeers of VR
The Void is brainchild of three founders. There’s Ken Bretschneider, whose credits include everything from helping develop VR Stalker, a flight sim on the 3D0 back in the 90s, to funding PeopleWater, a company that drills out wells in drought stricken parts of the world and sells the water to pay for it. There’s also James Jenson, who’s a serial entrepreneur in his own right and magician by trade, and Curtis Hickman, another magician known for his visual effects and design work.
Our first question was simple. How much of what we saw in that trailer was real? When Microsoft showed off its HoloLens technology in a CGI equipped trailer, it took a live demo at the Build conference to convince people it was real.
Jenson answered confidently. “It’s a complete experience,” he said, suggesting that everything in the trailer has already been achieved by the company’s alpha prototype. While he did admit that custom hardware and certain interactions, like ranged combat, aren’t quite ready yet, the rest was all working perfectly.
“I can put three people in [The Void] right now and they can battle,” he said.
“We’ve had people come and try out the experience as it is, who have only seen the video and their expectations have been matched or surpassed. I don’t think we’ve had anyone say they were disappointed.”
When we asked about the latency issues discussed by other VR developers when it comes to wireless interaction, Jensen laughed and said that no, there were no problems with it and that there shouldn’t be, since it was all built within a LAN environment.
The roots of The Void
The Void is a spin-off of Evermore Park, a planned adventure park that takes inspiration from fantasy, horror and magical realism. The 45-acre development has been in the works for several years, but as can be imagined, finishing such project isn’t easy. Bretschneider tells us that it’s still an ongoing development. Disney’s first park took decades, he said, and while it’s hoped that Evermore won’t take that long, he and the other developers are aware that it’s not an overnight project.
It was during development of Evermore the idea for The Void was born. Based initially around a single experience known as the Celtic Ruins, it was designed to combine AR, VR and the real world into an amalgamated, theatrical event. The idea ran into cost difficulties, however, related to building and re-building the necessary sets. Chopping and changing the environment on a regular basis was a huge, costly challenge.
When the difficulties of such an experience became apparent, Ken and co. moved on to a virtual reality experience, which requires a less detailed physical environment to achieve the same sense of immersion. By targeting set, repeatable VR experiences, the hardware and environment can be synchronized at a more tolerable cost.
The Rapture headsets that the developers are working on have twin-1080p curved displays that utilize “quantum dot” technology to eliminate the screen door effect and give much higher visual clarity than the still-far-from-ideal resolution can provide. They also have a 180-degree viewing angle and can handle high-fidelity visuals thanks to a computer boasting SLI-linked Nvidia GTX 980M GPUs, which are built into player’s backpacks.
The Void’s in-house Rapture headset offers a 180-degree viewing angle and uses quantum dot technology.
Hand tracking is currently possible via cameras, but it’s not perfect yet. Development is experimenting with gloves and other control schemes, but the final solution hasn’t quite been decided upon yet.
“We’re also developing our own proprietary chips for body tracking, which we hope to get up 120Hz to make it as accurate as possible,” said Jensen.
While The Void relies on some off-the-shelf components at this early alpha stage, the headsets and the body trackers are being developed by The Void’s in-house VR experts and a Chicago based engineering firm, Optimal Design. The two companies operate independently at the moment, though Bretschneider suggested they may merge in the future.
Virtual Reality, in the real world
As impressive as the hardware powering The Void is, the physicality of the experience is what really sets it apart. As well as utilizing movable walls to create ever changing environments for players, and physical objects that are mapped identically in the virtual and real world to improve immersion, The Void will also use redirected walking to great effect.
Although Hickman – the illusionist behind the development of this approach – and his partners refuse to speak candidly about their technique for redirecting players, the game will essentially use subtle visual cues and a rotation of the virtual world to make players feel like they are walking in straight lines, when in reality they are moving in circles around a central point within the VR center. This allows the developers to create huge, sprawling dungeons and other sorts of ‘levels’ within a relatively small space measuring sixty feet on a side.
Another nuance that Hickman is adding to the experience is the use of what’s described as 4D effects. These include of heat, blasts of air, and even the rumble of floor and wall panels, to generate physical effects in the world.
“The idea is to make them work without detracting from the experience,” said Hickman. “Sometimes you go to a 4D theatre and you’ll experience a bit of a disconnect between the visuals and the effects being used. They’re a bit gimmicky. We’re using techniques used by magicians and illusionists to seamlessly meld what you’re seeing with what you’re feeling.”
“It really enhances the illusion that we’re creating.”
We’re using techniques of magicians and illusionists to seamlessly meld what you’re seeing with what you’re feeling.
Jensen says effects can be tailored for individuals as well as groups. So while a 4D cinema might throw water on an entire crowd, or drop fake spiders on everyone at once, in The Void smoke only billows around the player who walked through the door. If they do it alone and another follows them soon after, they’ll experience the effect in their own time.
“We’re also using sound transducers,” said Bretschneider. “That, combined with the haptic suits lets us do things like make you feel the ripples of a portal as you step through, and you can actually feel it run from the front of your body to the back.”
A virtual theater experience
On top of the physical effects of course, the virtual world needs to be similarly impressive. However AAA game fidelity can take years to develop, so how does the team plan to have multiple experiences ready in time for the centre’s opening?
“We’ll be developing our own content, as well as outsourcing to game developers and other third parties. We want to release experiences like movies” said Jensen. “When we have multiple centres around the country and the world, they’ll each be distributed the latest content from the Void mothership here in Utah.”
This movie theater consumer experience is something that the team wants the whole project to be like. Bretschneider stated that users would book tickets online, with a time and place much like they do with movies, though he did suggest that it may be app based. Users would receive a notification when their experience is ready, meaning the time people spend waiting in line is minimal.
Experiences are currently set to be around 30 minutes each, with an intended price tag of between $25 and $40 per person, though we were told that depending on the location of the center and the IP used as part of the experience, it may go up. Due to licensing costs, if people want to experience one of their favorite fictional universes, they are going to have to pay a little more for it.
The Void is coming
While there is no cut and dry timeline for when paying customers will get their first taste of The Void, the first center is scheduled to begin construction in September, and open in June 2016. If all goes well, other centers will be opened far faster, as the template for their design will be much improved.
Beyond the physical centers there’s also talk of an online experience where those who’ve booked a place in a particular game can learn about the environment they’re going to be playing in and level up their character through free to play games on their smartphones.
There might be micro-transactions for certain upgrades too we’re told, but that will be much further down the line when the core experience is finalized.
While it’s difficult not to remain a little skeptical of pipe dream projects like The Void, its ambitions are impressive and unique. No other VR project is attempting to build an equally immersive experience. With luck, we’ll be able to enter the Void sometime next year.