Who hasn’t imaginatively dreamt, at some point or another, of taking a walk through their favorite film? What avid video gamer hasn’t wished that they could step directly into digital environments that–so far–only twiddling fingers can control?
The key words here are so far. Believe it or not, but those words are about to hit the virtual highways once and for all.
A revolutionary new immersive experience is currently in the works that could forever alter the ways in which we interact with our entertainment.
Driving 40 minutes south of Salt Lake City brings the verdant meadows of the Wasatch Range into view. It’s a beautiful retreat known by locals as “Utah’s City of Trees,” and it’s almost strange to think that what is being hailed as the “future of entertainment” could be slumbering quietly somewhere in the bramble.
Inside a foam-lined, 60-by-60-foot room resembling a cross-section of Epcot’s historic ball, Ken Bretschneider is making the impossible possible.
“It’s really only limited by the imagination,” Bretschneider tells BTR. “We’re merging physical and virtual realities together that you get to explore as you react. You maneuver the real world in our world.”
It turns out you don’t need to take the blue pill or travel to the Land of Oz. Instead, you can enter The VOID–the world’s very first virtual reality theme park.
The idea stemmed from a growing dissatisfaction the VOID CEO and founder felt regarding the current state of interactive entertainment. While virtual reality breakthroughs like Oculus Rift are fiddling away with new prototypes and tentative launch dates that hope to bring VR gaming experiences into the home, they are also not without inherent limitations for the user.
Augmented reality can reach only so far as reality will allow for enhancement. With The VOID, however, the exact opposite approach is taken: the limitless virtual world is augmented by reality.
Bretschneider stumbled upon the idea after selling his cybersecurity firm. While establishing the early prototypes of an immersive park called Evermore, he thought about the possibility of creating an environment designed specifically for virtual experiences. He imagined an environment where participants could maneuver virtually, yet utilize the physical world around them simultaneously.
He was so taken with the idea that he invested $13 million of his own finances towards bringing it into fruition.
“We were really stealthy in the beginning,” says Bretschneider. “We didn’t tell anyone who we were or what we were working on until we made a promo video that went viral.”
All three founding partners share backgrounds in digital effects, video production, and film production. Technology, first and foremost, proved to be the formative challenge that would unlock The VOID’s potential.
The team quickly realized they couldn’t accomplish what they had set out for through utilizing only pre-existing shelf technologies. Recruiting some of the world’s top technologists, they began reimagining body tracking systems, visual digital inputs, and optics to create an unparalleled experience that merges the cerebral with the physical.
The first ingredient is a completely new head-mounted display. Dubbed The Rapture, this piece of core technology provides VOID guests with dual high-density OLED displays (1080P per-eye resolution), quantum dots (which nearly double perceived resolution and color range), custom optics, high-quality THX headphones, inline microphones for in-game communications, and head tracking sensors so sensitive that they can run at 120HZ while providing sub-millimeter accuracy.
Next is the Rapture Vest, which is crucial to the experience for providing full body sensations that make the users feel as though they’re actually part of the game play. It’s a lightweight design that simulates environmental effects occurring in the VR world; every bullet, laser, and creature interaction has its own specific hit location and feel.
There are gloves too. Anything encountered in the virtual environment, whether it’s a sword or an elevator button, can be directly altered or used simply by reaching out and touching it.
Interacting with what though? You might ask. Isn’t everything strictly virtual?
Not quite. The real kicker behind The VOID is its use of interactive environments. Massive rooms (called stages) can be explored after donning The Rapture gear. While 60-by-60-foot dimensions may sound limiting, the advent of “redirected walking” renders the landscapes virtually boundary-less.
These virtual landscapes slowly maneuver users through curved paths. You might think you “see” yourself moving along a “straight” corridor and opening a door to a new room, while in actuality slight changes to what is perceived via the headset will cause you to walk in a circle.
“If you see a wall and go up to touch that wall, there’s a physical wall that matches the virtual wall,” explains Bretschneider.
“If there is a key object in the virtual world, it actually physically exists in the environment. You’re able to walk around the environment completely wireless; you’re completely immersed in there.”
It’s for this reason the CEO aptly named the experience 5D rather than 4D entertainment. The VOID is a fuzzy line between the world’s coolest movie theater and video gaming from the future. But Bretschneider is quick to assure that the experience isn’t meant for gamers only. Nearly half of the people who have tested it so far are children and adults with no prior video gaming experience–and they loved it.
What’s not to love? You can explore laboratories on alien planets, plumb the depths of ancient ruins, and fight off evil spirits in haunted mansions. There will be five to six different “amplified” experiences that will rotate on a weekly basis. Each runs approximately half an hour and is replete with countless paths and adventures inside of adventures. Some of them are even multi-player friendly–meaning more than one user can interact together inside a single environment at the same time.
The VR theme park sounds incredible, though it will take an incredible amount of patience to wait for it. The VOID is slated to open sometime in the summer of 2016, although the date could be pushed back in the coming months.
Bretschneider maintains, however, that the wait will be well worth it. He plans on taking the immersive experience to states across the country, and eventually even Europe, and especially Asia–where he believes it will really take off.
“We’re working with a large diversity of groups who are interested in this kind of center,” he says. “Aside from being a lot of fun, it could also be used in corporate environments, and maybe even to reinvent the way we think about education.”