The real magic behind The VOID

By Amanda Di Pancrazio - 6 Oct, 2017 - Maya

Mixed reality pioneer THE VOID has quickly brought itself to the forefront of VR and beyond with its proprietary hardware and 4D sensory techniques that 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 it's renowned, "Ghostbusters: Dimensions" experience at Madame Tussaud's in NYC, and now with its upcoming, "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire" experiences. Curtis Hickman, Chief Creative Officer and one of three founders of THE VOID, discusses the (real) magic and the tech that goes into fooling and entertaining the masses.



We have two worlds to consider when we build our experiences: the digital world and the physical world. We use Autodesk on both sides to help create the experiences.

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 develop our stages.


The art that we're trying to accomplish and the development we're trying to do isn't to make a video game. It's to make a robust livable experience.

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, the VK1 came out and 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 and wander 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 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 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."



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, and 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."



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.



Misdirection happens across all senses. We have scent machines. We have wind machines. We have misters. We have several types of haptics, including the 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 imperceptibly, 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, our own 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 try it to believe it.


Be transported in Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire from Lucasfilm, ILMxLAB and The VOID.




Published In
  • Maya
  • Film & VFX
  • Games
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