This week, I had the experience of feeling like Indiana Jones, if Indiana Jones had ever battled sea monsters.
"If I take over all your senses, are you transported into another world? Your brain thinks so," says Ken Bretschneider.
Bretschneider is CEO of a company called The Void, which is launching an immersive virtual reality experience where fantasy and real worlds eerily and amazingly blend. When a company names its display headset "Rapture," it is setting expectations high—and with good reason.
The Void, which stands for Vision of Infinite Dimensions, doesn’t really completely take over your senses—it is still working on smell, and there’s no taste element yet. But it does push the boundary past most virtual reality experiences today. There's no unsettling sense of being disembodied from the surrounding physical world. Instead, you’re interacting: Touch a dungeon wall, and the wall is really there. Sit down on a stone throne you see in the virtual world, and you're actually sitting down.
Inside the latest version of Void's "virtual experience center," which debuted at the TED conference in Vancouver this week, I was in a 30-by-30 foot room wandering around a space that felt much larger. Walking down one corridor into a room, my playing partner and I worked as a team to light a torch and open a secret door, wandering down a long hallway that led to a sea monster’s watery lair. The room tricks you—even though I was really just doubling back on my path and walking in small circles, my brain felt like it was advancing forward (the company says it borrows techniques from magicians and illusion artists). At one point a room crumbled and collapsed around us and my heart sped up. I truly felt like I was falling. Bretschneider says that my feet didn’t move one centimeter.
The Utah-based company plans to open its first full virtual entertainment center this fall and quickly expand to cities around the world. Centers in New York City’s Times Square, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are already in development, says Bretschneider. The technology includes a haptic backpack and vest that provides sensory feedback to your body, a display headset, and a physical stage that contains tracking sensors and equipment for special effects, like heat lamps and fans.
None of this is cheap. The small version of a stage costs about $15 million, plus there are going to be costs for new content development, which the company plans to release quarterly. But because it plans to build virtual reality centers, rather than a consumer system that must affordable for individuals, it can spend more to push the boundaries of the technology.
The Void calls its experience "cinematic," and it certainly feels that way. It is a game, but it is also heavily focused on telling stories. And entertainment is far from the only potential application.
Bretschneider imagines the system will be useful in education, perhaps recreating a historical experience such as the building of the Great Wall of China. It also will be useful for teaching empathy, as users interact with strange worlds and collaborate and interact with others within the experience. Eventually, they hope to loop people at Void centers around the world into one huge collaborative experience, and even include people at home.
Virtual and augmented reality (AR) worlds are a big theme at TED's conference this year. Meta, a company that produces AR glasses, will be highlighting its technology, and Chris Milk, a visual artist, will be giving a talk that integrates VR tech.