Universal Orlando Resort has something special for guests who visit its 26th annual Halloween Horror Nights from Sept. 29th through Oct. 31st. The theme park has created its first virtual reality horror attraction, The Repository, using wireless multiplayer technology from VRstudios’ VRcade division and Unity Technologies’ Unity 5 game engine.
According to T.J. Mannarino, senior director of entertainment, art and design, for Universal Orlando, the limited-time attraction is a combination of three or four different experiences that have been melded together and incorporate virtual reality as the heart of the experience.
“We use VR to take guests into the world of the paranormal,” Mannarino said. “And the only way to get you there is through this intricate storyline.”
“In the testing we’ve done, the way you have to tell stories in augmented reality and VR is a lot different.”
Four guests enter the storyline together, each assigned a different role in the live action story and in the VR experience. Mannarino said there’s 10 minutes of exploring The Repository warehouse before guests enter the 10-minute virtual reality experience. There’s also an additional 10 minutes of live action interaction in the finale, before exiting the 30-minute experience.
“The Repository is a top secret warehouse that’s stored and housed some of the strangest paranormal, occult and supernatural artifacts since the 1700s,” Mannarino said. “Having all of these objects so close together has increased the paranormal activity in the building.”
Essentially, Mannarino said the goal of the story is to search for a key that will transport guests to the other side of the spectral vortex through the Dark Portal – the window that ghosts use to haunt us in the real world. Guests engage with actors and performers that are part of a secret society that investigates the paranormal. The attraction begins in the archive area, where guests come into contact with the ancient caretaker of the building, who knows every artifact. Once the key is located, the team is transported into the paranormal using virtual reality.
“Once you enter the Dark Portal, you come in contact with the dark entities — creatures that live in the paranormal,” Mannarino said. “This experience is something that we could not do in the real world.”
Behind the scenes, Universal splits the group of four into two pairs on 18-foot by 18-foot stages, and then connects them together virtually so they can interact.
“It feels like they’re in the world together, and it’s a free roam experience,” Mannarino said. “We take you through a series of different environments that you explore. We define your play space before you get to the physical wall. We do texture mapping in the virtual world that maps to the physical world, and the architecture keeps you to a smaller space than the size of the real room.”
There’s also a barrier grid for safety, and team members in each room with the players. Mannarino said the act of putting on the headsets has been integrated into the storytelling experience, so guests are in the fictional world from the moment they step into the room. Mission briefings serve as a way to teach players about the VR experience, and props that can be used in the virtual world are given to the players. Using these, the players gain the skills they need to tackle the finale.
“We use VR to take guests into the world of the paranormal.”
“After you complete the VR experience, players have to take this information — as well as the tools and objects that they’ve been given — into the finale scene,” Mannarino said. “I don’t want to reveal the finale, but it’s a four-person, team-based puzzle that needs to be solved to stop the evil entities from taking over.”
The Repository is the latest “experiment” by Universal to incorporate multiplayer, video games, virtual reality and storytelling into its theme park attractions.
“In the testing we’ve done, the way you have to tell stories in augmented reality and VR is a lot different,” Mannarino said. “We’ve had fun playing with this technology over the last four or five years. The Repository falls into more the way video games are built, where you have background story loops and character attributes. When you bring that concept into the live world and let the audience give direction to the story, it changes the outcome.”
Mannarino said each four-person group will have a different experience than the group before them, and the group behind them.
Universal has four VR stages set up for this attraction. And by using an intermittently timed four-player entry system, Mannarino said 65 to 80 people can go through the experience per hour. Universal is charging guests $50 for the attraction, which is on top of the $67 to $105 per-person price for Halloween Horror Nights.