Virtual Reality is here to stay. Just watch the expression on the face of anyone trying VR out for the first time and it’ll be clear that some of VR’s biggest hurdles have been thoroughly lept. The sense of presence created by Rift, Vive, PSVR, Gear VR, and Daydream is so profound that it’s easy to want to shove every game into a headset to take advantage. And while home and mobile systems are proving that the technology is successful, they’re also proving to have some limitations. Players are restricted to standing, sitting, or roaming around a very small roomscale space (around 5x5 meters if you’re lucky). But as THE VOID proved last year with their first release of Ghostbusters: Dimension, some of the most immersive experiences are going to be found outside of the home where logistics – and new types of technology – can support it.
THE VOID, a Utah based developer, isn’t interested in small scale dreaming. They’re creating fantasies that dress large physical spaces with virtual trappings and sensory surprises in what they’ve dubbed “Hyper-Reality” experiences. This means players are free from computer anchors, are interacting with real world objects, and feeling wind, heat, and moisture.
“It’s a more encompassing solution than something like Oculus or Vive,” says THE VOID Chief Creative Officer, Curtis Hickman. “You’re untethered and wearing a haptic vest and it’s a tactile experience. So if you reach out to a sink you’ll feel the sink and if there’s a door, when you reach out to open the door, it’ll move both in digital and in physical space, matching one to one.”
Getting these spaces to match up perfectly isn’t easy. All of the specs must be met precisely so that any interaction players have with the real world match up to those in the virtual one. Any inconsistencies could be problematic for players trying to navigate an unfamiliar environment. Players need to be confident that they won’t collide with real world walls or other objects that they can’t technically see coming. This is an issue in small room scale set ups based in living rooms full of furniture and other clutter. “That’s the beautiful thing about THE VOID. Once you realize that walls are walls and if you see it you can touch it – and we don’t betray that trust – then you learn rather quickly to just feel like you’re in this open world. In THE VOID you’ll see it before you hit it every time.
Until we’re all immersed in the haptic tanks from Ready Player One, mixing virtual and real world environments like this might be about as close as we get to “being there”. On top of high tech haptic feedback vests and interaction with physical objects in the world, it’s the additional sensory effects that add real weight to the fantasy they’re selling. “Multi sensory effects tie into the game engine as well so that when you’re on a balcony looking out over the city, fans turn on. Same thing with fire, you can feel that it’s hot. There are even smells and other sensory mechanics in Ghostbusters to carry the experience.” They’ve even managed to concoct a way to create one of the most iconic events from the first Ghostbusters film. “I had a list of things that people are going to want to do in Ghostbusters. People are going to want to carry proton guns and trap ghosts. People are going to want to destroy stuff. People are going to want to get slimed – that’s another one of those big ones. So I had to make that wish come true for ghostbusters fans and enthusiasts alike.”
The Ghostbusters: Dimension experience play area is a 30 foot by 30 foot set while virtual space is much bigger. Being able to convey a large fantastical environment in limited space is an important consideration when installing an experience like this in an existing structure like Madame Tussauds. To get around this, the team employ some nifty tricks like redirected walking (you can learn a little more about what that is here) to make a small space feel much bigger than it is. On top of that, sensors, computer backpacks, HMDs, special peripherals, props, and haptics all need to be in sync for multiple participants that can see, and interact with, each other. Even with what seems like a relatively small 900 square foot area, Ghostbusters: Dimension and the rest of The VOID’s upcoming experiences take an enormous amount of set-up.
While THE VOID has been working on creating this technology and developing games that use it effectively, Ghostbusters marked the first release for the company. “The set up at Tussauds is sort of that first experience. I guess trial run is a good way to put it. Obviously it’s totally open to the public and we’re learning a lot from it and it’s going to do nothing but inform how we’re doing more of these installations here in the near future.”
THE VOID indeed recently released updates to the experience that help increase immersion and player engagement. Additions like the Egon’s Psychokinetic Energy (P.K.E) Meter - used in the film - creates a sense of anticipation before encounters. That device is one players will need to find, which encourages players to explore and really experience the environment fully. THE VOID has also added achievements and scores to add more replayability and encourage friendly competition.
And for the future? “We talk to all major players when we talk about existing IP as we’re excited to bring people worlds that [players] always wanted to step into. We’re also extremely excited to create our own IP. We’ve been working on that a lot as of late especially since it’s easier to cater that to THE VOID and to the things that make THE VOID so special. You can really take advantage of it by creating the IP from the ground up.”