Roughly 40 minutes south of Salt Lake City, Pleasant Grove, Utah, offers the kind of visuals one might expect from a place called "Utah's City of Trees": a pleasant, green landscape set near the Wasatch Range. But if The VOID, a local virtual reality company designing an interactive experience being billed as "the future of entertainment" has its way, you'll soon be able to see a lot more than nature in this small town. Imagine being able to go anywhere, or see anything: stroll through ancient ruins, put your feet up on a simulated version of the President's desk in the Oval Office, even explore an alien spaceship. The company, self-funded by cyber security entrepreneur Ken Bretschneider, is placing a big bet on its as-yet-unproven proprietary technology, which has gathered press attention as the predicted 2016 opening date of its first virtual reality theme park draws near. But what may be slightly counterintuitive about the concept is that to create virtual space, you need a lot of actual space, according to Chief Creative Office Curtis Hickman. An explanation of the in-development technology offers insight into what could be called the real-world architecture behind imaginary spaces.
"Physical space is the one commodity you can't reproduce at home," he says.
According to Hickman, The VOID theme parks, filled with 60-by-60-foot rooms for gameplay, will help create an experience that's completely different than you could get sitting at home. It's aiming for the ideal of an endless world, the long-awaited but never-delivered promise of virtual reality which has been fueling excitement from the early days of the technology to today's buzz over the Oculus Rift headset.
Central to the VOID experience is the idea of redirected walking. Players will don custom-built gloves and headsets with 180-degree vision and explore within the aforementioned 60-by-60 rooms (called stages), all enclosed underneath a large air dome, which removes obstacles such as steel support beams. Those dimensions may sound limiting, but the virtual landscape will slowly steer players in curved paths; you may think and "see" yourself walking down a straight hallway and opening the door to a new room, but in fact, slight changes in what you see via the headset will cause you to walk in a circle. During the experience, modular obstacles such as fake trees or walls could simply be repositioned by staff, but the program can also just direct players to keep encountering the same tree. It's a high-tech take on the tricks of attraction design, like turning a string of fishing line into a spider web, but heightened by actually "seeing" the web.
"You know what augmented reality is?" says Hickman. "We're the opposite. That's taking the real world and enhancing it with virtual reality. We're taking the virtual world and enhancing it with reality."
Another key factor in making the VOID possible is the recent advances in mobile and display technology. The untethered headsets, which the company calls "the Rapture," offer mobile, higher-resolution screens, key to allowing people to roam further and freer in virtual space. The entire experience just wouldn't have been possible a few years ago.
Hickman says they're still aiming for a 2016 opening, though anything can happen as they refine and finish the technology. The company, which employs 100-200 people in nearby Lindon, currently owns the land where they want to build their first virtual reality theme park, but they're still drafting plans for the facility, which will include a museum and restaurant near the entrance and a large air dome for gameplay. (An alpha system has been built for testing, but nothing is finalized).
While scenarios and game ideas are being developed, Hickman says the possibilities of virtual space mean the underlying technology can be a lot more than games and first-person shooter type experiences. The educational market could be big, and the possibilities for architectural visualization could change the process of selling high-end spaces or demoing building designs. Instead of talking about the views from a penthouse suite, you could see them.
"In these fantasy worlds, you have the potential to do outrageous things," he says. "From an architecture perspective, it's incredible. You can design things that the physics of this world wouldn't allow."
Hickman says that virtual reality is the "art of illusion"—he should know, since the visual effects specialist was also a professional magician—and believes the forthcoming technology is worth the hype. The company is already looking toward expansion beyond the initial site, and Hickman believes the idea has a big future in the Asian market. It's still too early to make promises. Though, of course, he's also in one of the few industries where success can be defined as being good at fooling the public.
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