Immersive entertainment company The VOID has quickly brought itself to the forefront of VR and beyond. Its proprietary hardware and 4D sensory techniques have wowed over 100,000 visitors in the past three years. This team of over 100 strong composed primarily of engineers, visionaries and innovators has made headlines with its renowned Ghostbusters: Dimensions experience at Madame Tussauds in NYC, and now with its upcoming Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire experience.
Curtis Hickman, Chief Creative Officer and one of three founders of The VOID, discusses the magic and tech that goes into entertaining the masses through the illusion of hyper-reality.
BUILDING FOR TWO REALITIES
BUILDING FOR TWO REALITIES
We have two worlds to consider when we build our experiences: the digital world and the physical world. We use Autodesk software in both these worlds to help create our hyper-reality experiences.
On the digital side, we're a big Maya house. We use it for modeling, storyboards, and cinematics. We're using subscription licenses, so we try to stay as up to date with Maya versions as we can, especially recently with the introduction of the new UV tools and the massive modeling improvements.
On the physical side of things, we use AutoCAD to design and develop our stages. We use it for creating physical environments that can match perfectly with our illusionary digital worlds.
MAKING HYPER-REALITY A THING
At The VOID, we’re focused on creating a truly robust and livable experience, which is far deeper and more immersive than a traditional video game.
Since day one, we very simply wanted to take people to other worlds and make it feel and seem as real as possible. We had seen VR before in the 90's and it was almost a thing. Of course, when the DK1 came out we looked at that. We just felt like there was something missing and that VR was more than just your eyes. We really wanted to incorporate the other senses, remove that feeling of being tethered so that we could believe we were wandering freely.
These goals—at the time—were very high aspirations, but from the get-go, we were confident that we could make it happen. We wanted to make good on that dream to bring people to new worlds and have them really feel like they're there. It's not enough to be able to look around and see Star Wars around you. I want to be a part of it. I want to feel it. I want to touch it. I even want to smell it.
"It's not enough to be able to look around and see Star Wars around you. I want to be a part of it. I want to feel it. I want to touch it. I even want to smell it."
MAGIC & HYPER-REALITY
Our infinite redirected walking system, our dynamic 4D sensory effects, and mixed reality gameplay are just some of the ingredients of what we call hyper-reality. For us, it's a mix of two realities. It's taking the physical and digital world and marrying it – blending it – in a way where the two accent each other to create this new reality that is greater than either reality experienced individually. It goes much further than just virtual reality or reality itself in that way.
A big portion of creating the illusion of this new reality is convincing your mind that it's actually happening. If there is a storm, then we want to have wind and moisture. If you're in a pine forest, we want you to smell pine trees. It doesn't have to be a myriad of things; we don't have to replicate everything. It just has to be enough to make a simple argument for your brain to be convinced. If you can do this consistently, you're able to establish a world that is much more immersive and impactful than just seeing it with your eyeballs.
Magic is big a part of this. My background's in magic, and I've always looked at my work at The VOID like a magic show. Let's say you're watching a magician on stage and he's making a ball float in the air. If that's all he's doing, everyone in the audience would just sit there thinking, "Oh, man. There are some strings there. It's not real. It's fake," but the second that that magician brings out a hoop and passes the hoop around the ball, has the ball float in a glass box or does everything he can to prove that there are no strings, then you're left with this weird conundrum because he's provided evidence. Your mind – what a magician would call psychological misdirection – will think, "Hey, what you're seeing is real. This thing really is floating and there really is nothing connected to it." This leaves you in awe because that doesn't actually match what you knew as reality before.
Magicians make virtual worlds for their audiences in the same way that The VOID makes hyper-reality for ours.
"Magicians make virtual worlds for their audiences in the same way that The VOID makes hyper-reality for ours."
A MAGICIAN'S SECRET REVEALED
Redirection has been really important to us. We've done a ton of experiments using redirected walking, but especially in the early days, it was important to not just redirect somebody by having them constantly walk in different parabolic arcs.
One of the first things we did was redirect people in a curved hallway with walls; if they walked down that curved hallway, they could actually reach out and feel the wall next to them, but it would feel straight because they're walking along the arc of the wall. What they see in the headset is a straight hallway, and they feel themselves walking straight down the middle of that hallway. If they reach out and touch the wall next to them, they feel a straight wall despite the fact that none of that's true. They're essentially walking in circles, following a curved path. We've used a lot of variations of this trick to misdirect.
FOOLING THE SENSES
Misdirection happens across all senses. We have scent machines. We have wind machines. We have misters. We have several types of haptics, including floor heaters. We use a lot of these in different ways than you might think. For example, we might use heat to actually make you feel cold by warming you up in one environment unperceivably, so when you step into the next one, it's cooler just by the difference in the room's ambient temperature.
We have our own custom haptic vest, custom haptic guns, and certain stage effects that we’ve built ourselves. If something off the shelf works, don't reinvent it. But if the thing doesn't exist and you hold yourself to a certain standard, sometimes you don't have a choice. We work very hard to keep the standards of The VOID very high and at times, that comes at a cost of having to do some R&D and developing our own hardware - but it's been absolutely worth it.
Hyper-reality is here now: it's what people think of and what they imagine VR to be, but they'll need to experience it for themselves to believe it.
For more, read: James Jensen's hyper-real vision for The VOID and the future
Be transported in Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire from Lucasfilm, ILMxLAB and The VOID.