We Stepped Into The Void, The Worlds First Virtual Reality Theme Park
In Pleasant Grove, UT a new kind of theme park is being built called The Void that uses virtual reality to creative an immersive, out of this world experience. We wrote about it here a few weeks ago.
Check out their promo video:
When The Void opens to the public it will allow people to schedule sessions, paid for by the half hour, and step into a world of their choosing as anyone they’d like to be, to basically do anything they’d like to do. But unlike Disney and Universal which have kept their users of virtual reality strapped in (usually locked into a vehicle, ride, or chair), The Void allows you to roam free in a world that is limitless. You can teleport, ride elevators and moving platforms, turn corners to find a completely different world, despite walking in circles in the real, physical room that you’re in.
Jake and I had to give it a try so we reached out to them, and fortunately for us they didn’t tell us to buzz off. Instead we were invited down to play a few demos and chat with James Jensen, the Chief Visionary Officer so we could provide a review for the good people who read Echo Base. (That’s You!)
I have to admit, I was very skeptical going down there. Not skeptical that it would be fun, but skeptical that it would be any different than the many times I’ve played around with VR and been only mildly impressed. Going back to the 90s when VR units started popping up in Dave and Busters and other arcades, these huge room sized machines that still kept you stationary and strapped in, I was wildly excited. But those were terrible. Disney and Universal have had a lot of success in the 2000s with 3D and interactive shows both in theaters and in ride formats, but you’ve always been at their mercy, playing out their story. You can’t control the fate of your character, it’s not a game, it’s a ride. (Excluding some of the games at Disney Quest, but those have their limitations too). And then most recently we’ve had things like the Oculus which has forced Sony and Microsoft to both pump up development on VR goggles as well, allowing gamers to completely step into the viewing experience of a game. Finally we have virtual reality that we control. These have since been mostly limited to using a controller in your hands however. Sure you look around to turn your characters POV, but you’re walking with your thumb still. The Void promises walking with your body, actually moving in a 3d VR space. That’s the holy grail, so of course I was skeptical.
Let me just say right now, I was wrong to be skeptical. What these guys are working on is not only the future of gaming, but the future of education, advanced training, and simulations as we know it.
Setup and configuration time only took us about 3-4 minutes, which is super impressive given the accuracy of the mapping and the latency of the VR. The place where we tested The Void is not the impressive theme park that’s currently being built (more on that soon), but rather just a small corporate office with a back warehouse area that they converted into a test facility for PR purposes. Before we had much time to look around we were getting suited up.
To enter The Void you’ll be wearing a series of devices. In our demo we wore a prototype headset (basically an Oculus strapped to a snowboarding helmet with a leap motion for hand tracking) and a vest (used mostly to hold the computer unit that does the tracking of your body and uploads it to the servers). However in reality when they open their equipment will be far more advanced. We saw prototypes of a custom made helmet that reduces pressure on your face while also providing safety in the case of collisions or falls. We saw a prototype vest with 10 haptic feedback speakers front and back that literally hit you in the chest when you are shot or attacked by an enemy in a game. We saw gloves and ankle bracelets that will be used to fully map your appendages in the game. And we saw a new prototype gun with limited buttons that make it easy to quickly change your weapon in the game and accurately attack and defend.
Safety and ease of use are huge hurdles for these guys as they will be the first to allow users to freely roam in a physical world with other players around them, while being completely immersed in a virtual world. It’s not easy, and it requires extremely fast rendering of graphics, perfect 1-to-1 mapping of the physical and digital worlds, and a bit of trickery to keep it’s players on track and safe within the confines of the physical world. Luckily these guys seem to have mastered all of the above. Even when we played the 2 player game I felt very confident in knowing where Jake was and where the walls in the physical world were at all times.
The Void does all of this by putting you inside a room with what looks like a bunch of long empty hallways and a bunch of sensors up above. These hallways are the physical control system that allows The Void to map your game experience and put you through an endless playable path. There are servers that serve up the imagery of the world your in to your headset, the sensors don’t map the walls in real time, that’s already done, instead the sensors map you and all of that data is uploaded to the server which places you within the digital world. It’s truly amazing how fast it happens. We tried to break the mapping or slow down the frame rate several times by rapidly moving our heads around and couldn’t throw it off. Only a few times did it glitch and honestly it could have been a part of the game, we were so immersed I honestly can’t be sure.
So when will you be able to go? Well ACTUALLY they’re doing a public beta testing right now. Literally the day after we left our test run last week they announced it. They had such a huge positive reaction and so many requests for the beta that the reservation system they used crashed and I imagine they had a very long week scheduling them. It’s currently completely booked but check back often if you want a shot, they may add more. If you’re not satisfied with the public beta and want the full experience there’s more good news, they’re shooting for Q3 of 2016, just about a year away. The ultimate plan is to have a huge facility with upwards of 8 rooms, 4x bigger than the one we tested in EACH. Each room can support up to 4 players currently so we can expect about 32 people can play at once in the Void. The building will be just like a theme park complete with a restaurant and other attractions like an arcade and a museum, and as I mentioned above there won’t be lines because you’ll have to schedule your appointments ahead of time.
Honestly I have nothing bad to say about The Void. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. We are working on an interview with James Jensen, the Chief Visionary Officer now. Check back for more updates and trust us when we say, you’re going to want to plan a trip to this place as soon as it opens. The future is now…
Jake’s Tag-A-Long (Talking About The Games):
I’m just going to add-on a little bit to Tim’s review because he wrote so much of what I would have wrote as well. The skepticism was there for me as well having owned an Oculus Rift DK1 and currently owning a DK2, but that quickly dissolved away once the games turned on.
The games were really amazing. The first one they walked us through was a solo mission exploring an ancient cave. Kind of a Lara Croft meets Indiana Jones situation. As I walked through the caverns, I became aware that this was the first time I was truly experiencing the transcendence of virtual reality. Typically playing at home, I am in my chair with a controller in my hand exploring some reality by looking around. Thats a boundary that always prevented me from truly being in the experience. The closest that I have ever experienced having that disconnect of virtual reality being stronger than my reality was with Alien: Isolation. Mostly I think that was due to the fear of being eaten by the Alien. At The Void, you are placed in that reality by being given a space to move around that had some boundaries but you never felt that isolated by them.
There are little interaction points in the game that cause you to touch, sit, and feel in parts of the environment. This is when I noticed that I was being hesitant in areas. There is a part in the cavern when you are standing on a platform and it starts to rise up. The floor rumbles, the perspective changes as you begin to lift up, and as you reach the top you feel a gust of wind hit your face. When it all began, I stepped back. Not because of a fear of heights, but because I didn’t want to fall over the edge and end my turn. I knew I was in a safe place in reality and that nothing could happen to me but still the potential risk to myself in the game caused hesitation for me. That was my moment for realizing that this was where VR gaming should be. Where the future of entertainment, education, and exploration are no longer spectator experiences in VR but could be immersive experiences. The game takes you through a little more of the outside and back into a cavern where suddenly the floor starts to fall out from underneath you and you tiptoe or skip jump out to the safe area only to be greeted by a falling rock…BAM, you are teleported out to the safe zone.
The second game was a multi-player first-person shooter as space marines. Tim and I suited up with our VR suits, helmets and guns. The Void is making their own VR gun and just from seeing the prototype, theirs is 500x better. The portal opened and in I was pushed by Tim to be the first victim on whatever space alien existed. The tracking was very impressive in this game. At no point did I really lose track of where Tim was located in proximity to me and felt that I could easily move in the space to get around any space dangers that existed. The big highlights from this one were the spider webs that were in the game but had been set up in the walkthrough space so you not only see them in game but you feel them as well, the massive overhang with floating eyes that shot plasma bolts at you and the super creepy space alien that you fight back against. Yes we did beat that space alien fight and I may have shot it one more time as I stepped around its corpse just to be safe. Rule #2 is always followed. Double tap to insure safety. Tim totally stepped over the digital alien that was non-existent in real life though. It was funny to see.
All in all, it was a great time. One that made me wish we could time travel to a year ahead so we can start visiting The Void every weekend for multi-battle fun.