Virtual reality is a game-changing technology, with the potential to impact every major industry and profession. At the forefront of that industry is The VOID, a company whose location-based experiences have showcased the awesome power and potential of VR.
Here, in his own words, chief visionary officer, James Jensen, discusses the history of The VOID, hyper-reality, its new Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire VR experience, and the future.
MY FIRST BRUSH WITH THE VIRTUAL WORLD
I went to school in the fine arts, in commercial art and design, and founded my own creative agency, Sandman Studios, not long after graduating. We were privileged to work for some Hollywood studios, as well as some web and multimedia game development companies, doing visual effects, and that was really my introduction to the field. It was 16 or 17 years ago, and we were working with motion capture rigs and green screens, and then tracking objects through space.
Then, one day on set, we were working with EncodaCam systems – one of the first systems that would let you track a real camera in space to a virtual camera, allowing the director to see the computer-generated set onscreen, and even move the camera around to set up his shot. And it was just an incredible experience, to see this virtual world created before my eyes, mapped over the physical world, and I knew that I wanted to be involved with this technology. I wanted to be inside that world.
For years after that, I would continue to research the technology, think up business plans, just waiting for the right time. Then, in early 2014, I was approached by Curtis Hickman and Ken Bretschneider; they wanted my help to build an immersive theme park, I brought in a small team to help pre-visualize the park with the idea being that we would map the entire park on a computer and then visitors could explore it on an iPad.
"...the response of many people was just flat-out denial: 'There’s no way you’re doing this.' And our response was, 'Well, if you don’t believe we’re doing it, then come see.'"
The VOID, Lindon, Utah. Image courtesy of The VOID
FOUNDING The VOID
From that initial success, Ken, Curtis and I got to talking. They wanted to know if I had any ideas for attractions for their park, and I knew my opportunity had finally come, so I pitched them my idea of mapping a virtual world over a physical world, and they loved it. With a handshake and initial funding from Ken, I brought together a small team and built a prototype in about three and a half months; it was a two-wall system with a funky electromagnetic tracking system, and it worked well enough to convince them we could make this work.
In 2015, we incorporated the company as The VOID and released our first performance video, which got 3 million views in its first week and a half and got people talking. It was so novel, so original, that the response of many people was just flat-out denial: “There’s no way you’re doing this.” And our response was, “Well, if you don’t believe we’re doing it, then come see,” and everyone that took up our challenge was blown away, and from then on, we’ve been on a rocket ship, just trying to keep up.
The term “hyper-reality” came from our trying to understand why everyone was coming out of their experience with The VOID saying, ‘This is different than anything I’ve ever done.’ We wanted to put our thumb on that, to really understand what made this different from virtual reality, and we realized that virtual reality was too reliant on the visual. People put on a virtual reality helmet and they can see something and hear something, but they don’t really get any other references to the world. With hyper-reality, the world reacts to you.
"...magicians use this term, “arguments.” Arguments provide credibility to the audience that what they’re seeing is actually real...once we applied that concept to our technology, we opened up entirely new opportunities. "
Curtis has a background in magic – he actually used to do work with David Copperfield – and magicians use this term, “arguments.” Arguments provide credibility to the audience that what they’re seeing is actually real, actually happening, and once we applied that concept to our technology, we opened up entirely new opportunities. And for me, personally, this really tapped into my creative side, bridging the gap between art and technology, because you’re really creating a new world, one that has to be credible and enjoyable at the same time.
Image courtesy of The VOID
So, for example, we came to understand that frame rates and DPI (dots per inch) have very little do with motion sickness. Yes, they contribute, but it’s more about not being able to walk around a space, like you would in real life, that creates a feeling of sickness. I’ve discovered, over time, that while there’s a virtual world we can map over the physical world, there’s also a mental world that your mind creates as you explore the real world, touching and interacting with it, and that’s a very difficult thing to fool using only visual or auditory cues. So our goal has been to provide stage effects and a higher level of interaction, to convince you that what you’re seeing is actually happening.
hyper-reality also has an online meaning, where it’s defined as a virtual reality so real that you can’t tell the difference between it and reality itself. We’re not there yet, but that’s definitely the goal.
"...we still have a long way to go before we’re at true hyper-reality, but we’ve seen incredible progress."
Obviously, there were some significant developments that had to take place for us to get to this point, and we still have a long way to go before we’re at true hyper-reality, but we’ve seen incredible progress. That being said, there are still some limitations we have to work around.
At the highest levels, the technology is just too expensive for the average home user. It’s analogous to how plasma televisions were when they first came out: very powerful, very technologically impressive, but too expensive to convince people to adopt them. But that’s part of what we see as The VOID’s advantage: it will fill that gap before home VR becomes ubiquitous, by offering something on location that you just can’t get at home. We’ll convince people to come to us because frankly there’s just so much that we can do in our facilities that you can’t do at home.
THE PURPOSE OF VR
One of the most fun and rewarding aspects of working in this field is watching how rapidly this technology is evolving, and how we’re constantly discovering new applications for it. In the beginning, it was all about entertainment; people just had a lot of fun exploring a virtual world, or experiencing something they’d never seen before. Time and time again, people would leave our experience saying, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’
"There’s a responsibility that comes with this, too...before we expand into other areas, we want to be thoroughly educated about how people will react to the technology. "
But as things continue to develop, we’re starting to realize the potential for this technology is limitless. It’s kind of like the Internet, in that regard: nobody envisioned the Internet doing all of the things it now does in our lives. Take education, for example. We know that the highest information retention rates come from experience. In fact, we already use simulators to train pilots. But what if we could take that experience and make it even more realistic? We could train future surgeons and doctors in an environment that is as close to the real thing as possible, without the life-or-death consequences. If the Internet delivered the “information of all things,” then VR will deliver “the experience of all things,” and The VOID will be at the forefront of that.
There’s a responsibility that comes with this, too. Right now, we’re very focused on entertainment, because before we expand into other areas, we want to be very educated about how people will react to the technology. We’re learning how to trigger things in people’s minds, so there are things you shouldn’t do, buttons you shouldn’t press.
FROM "GHOSTBUSTERS" TO "STAR WARS"
So, for the time being, we’re focused on entertainment. We partnered with Sony to offer a companion VR experience to the latest Ghostbusters movie, and that’s been out since July of last year. We’ve been updating that, reprogramming the software to offer new builds, and that’s been a great learning experience for us, and will impact everything we do going forward.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire from Lucasfilm, ILMxLAB and The VOID.
We took a lot of what we learned from that Ghostbusters work and made our upcoming Star Wars experience, Secrets of the Empire, even better, adding more realism and fidelity, and operating with a greater understanding of how people react to virtual worlds. We worked closely with Lucasfilm to deliver something we’re confident Star Wars fans will love, and that should be completed and accessible to the public by the holiday season.
AUGMENTED VS VIRTUAL
For the time being, The VOID is focused exclusively on virtual reality, on creating new worlds and new experiences that are totally foreign to the user. AR is more about adding to reality, which definitely has its applications, but we believe the entertainment potential is much higher with VR. In the virtual world, your mind can really let go of your present cares – that night’s dinner, or the groceries, or the laundry you need to do – and focus on the world in front of it.
"Once you’re inside [VR], you’re completely immersed in that world, you’re giving it your undivided attention...in a way that AR just can’t match."
Adam Gazzaley, one of the members of our board of advisors, is a neuroscientist out of UCSF, and I’ve had several conversations with him about this, and the consensus has been that VR is really unique in this regard. Once you’re inside it, you’re completely immersed in that world, you’re giving it your undivided attention, and that makes it a remarkable vehicle for entertaining or educating people, in a way that AR just can’t match. Obviously, both are very important, and both will serve their purposes, but that’s how we see it for now.
Image courtesy of The VOID
LEARNING ON LOCATION
One of the things that was missing in the market – and still is, to a large extent – is a standard platform. We knew this from the beginning, and we wanted to deliver that platform. We wanted to offer the highest quality experience, so that content creators working under the constraints of a budget, could feel confident in our platform.
"Until you put a location out there and figure out how to get people in and out of suits, and how to make the throughput work – until you’ve dealt with ticketing systems, and attendance, and the day-to-day operating procedures – you’re very inexperienced."
As of right now, if you’re a content creator, you’re faced with a real dilemma, because there are so many different platforms. Will you create content for a phone or a home computer or a standalone VR system? The VOID has solved that problem in a big way, because of our location-based VR service. We know how to accomplish that; we’re out in the market; we’ve learned from years of experience and built a working business model.
I can’t express strongly enough how valuable the experience is, and that’s something we have gained a lot of over the last three to four years. Until you put a location out there and figure out how to get people in and out of suits, and how to make the throughput work – until you’ve dealt with ticketing systems, and attendance, and the day-to-day operating procedures – you’re very inexperienced. And that’s something we’ve been through. We’re still refining things, but we’ve learned so much already. This isn’t like opening a theater and asking people to take their seats; every step of the process is complicated, and we’ve worked out a lot of those kinks.
Image courtesy of The VOID
The VOID IS NOT A GAME
The one thing that differentiates us from so much of the competition is that we’re not a game; we don’t even use the word “game” in any of our marketing. When you’re inside The VOID, you’re not “playing a game.” You’re experiencing a new world, interacting with new objects, just as you would in real life. Sure, we’ll build things that have game-like features, but what we’re really trying to do is capture people’s imaginations in an unprecedented way. We want you to feel like you’re stepping into an entirely new world, and then we want you to come back to that place with your friends and family. That’s the standard we’re trying to set.
At the moment, it’s difficult to predict the future, just because the possibilities seem so limitless, but if you want to know my honest opinion, I think VR will greatly contribute to human evolution, and shape our future in deep and meaningful ways.
"I can’t see one facet of human existence that this won’t dramatically alter. "
Again, I go back to the comparison with the Internet. When I look at my kids today, with their smartphones and 24/7 connection to their friends, and even the wider world, they’re living in a different world than the one I grew up in. And virtual reality will have a similar impact. I can’t see one facet of human existence that this won’t dramatically alter. It won’t matter if you’re a doctor, a neuroscientist, a teacher or a contractor – this technology will change your world. People will learn and improve at a much higher rate than in the past.
I have this vision of how augmented reality could be used in tutorials. You take this 10- or 11-year-old kid and put him at a desk covered in computer components, and tell him to assemble those parts into a working computer. And for two hours, this kid tries and tries, but just can’t do it. And then they put an AR helmet on him, and now he gets detailed instructions on what each piece does as he picks it up – how it works, where it goes, how to connect it. And now it takes him 20 minutes, and he gains a real understanding from what he’s done. That’s the kind of future I envision for this technology.
For more, read: Curtis Hickman on the real magic behind The VOID