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Dream Park

From giant robots to haptic spiders, the real future of virtual worlds

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My partner and I step through a portal and into a bright, vaguely Mayan temple. I pick up a torch to light the way, and we set off on our adventure: over the course of less than ten minutes, we find a hidden passage, escape from a huge serpent in an underground lake, climb hundreds of feet to a beautiful vista, and, after getting through a cramped hall full of spiders, fulfill a mystical prophecy about a fractured star.

Dream Park

From giant robots to haptic spiders, the real future of virtual worlds

By Adi Robertson & Ben Popper

My partner and I step through a portal and into a bright, vaguely Mayan temple. I pick up a torch to light the way, and we set off on our adventure: over the course of less than ten minutes, we find a hidden passage, escape from a huge serpent in an underground lake, climb hundreds of feet to a beautiful vista, and, after getting through a cramped hall full of spiders, fulfill a mystical prophecy about a fractured star.

Then we take off our headsets, and it all disappears. I’m standing on stage playing a game called The Curse of the Serpent’s Eye in The Void, an experience created by the Utah-based company of the same name that is one part virtual reality, one part video game, one part interactive theater, and one part haunted house. Its creators call it "hyper-reality": a virtual experience overlaid onto physical space, creating impossible places that visitors can touch as well as see.

Instead of a torch, I’m carrying a wooden dowel studded with small, shiny balls. Instead of the hissing snake, I see what look like powerful fans. And instead of the straight golden walls, there’s a round and nearly featureless gray labyrinth, turning us in circles forever.

On July 1st, after months of running limited "beta testing," The Void is opening its first public attraction: a Ghostbusters-themed experience in New York City’s Times Square, located inside the Madame Tussauds wax museum. For $50, visitors can strap on a VR headset and a backpack computer fashioned into a Ghostbusters proton pack, pick up a matching gun-shaped plastic prop, and act out a cinematic fantasy in real life. After opening a door into a small New York City apartment, they’re accosted by tiny pink poltergeists, then make their way into an elevator and out a 40th-story window. A flock of living stone gargoyles and one angry Victorian spirit later, everything seems fine… until a familiar marshmallow-shaped face appears in the window.

Ghostbusters: Dimension is short and linear, although there are supposedly hidden Easter eggs for visitors to find—it’s a walk-through three-person experience, not a vast virtual world. But as technological achievements go, it’s a stunningly intricate one. Players can see full-body avatars of their companions thanks to tracking markers on the headset and gun, and they walk freely through a tremendous amount of space by VR standards. Haptic feedback simulates the feeling of getting hit by a thrown object or friendly proton pack fire, and mist accompanies the whooshing of a ghost. We tried it, and it may blow your mind if you ever get a chance to try it too.

Over the last four years, virtual reality has emerged as one of tech’s most exciting new sectors: Facebook, Google, Samsung, and Sony are all in the process of producing and marketing virtual reality hardware. Most of those devices are are being sold directly to consumers; the experiences they offer—games, short films, and the like—are meant to be played at home, sitting in a chair or else tethered to a nearby PC and power supply.

But there’s an entirely separate category of virtual reality that won’t be possible at home. You’ll be able to walk freely, without tripping over wires. You’ll actually feel the heat of a fire on your face, and the weightlessness in your stomach during a fall off a skyscraper. These are the virtual reality experiences currently being built into arcades, attractions, and theme parks.

Shot on location at Quassy Amusement Park

In February of this year, China’s Shanda Group announced it would invest $350 million in virtual reality and build a VR theme park built in collaboration with The Void. IMAX, the widescreen theater chain, is working with the Swedish game studio Starbreeze to bring "premium location-based virtual reality … to multiplexes, malls and other commercial destinations." And established amusement parks are layering virtual reality onto their existing rides—Six Flags is currently upgrading nine roller coasters into VR experiences this summer.

In one way, there’s something contradictory about driving all the way to a theme park to get into a virtual world. In another, "virtual reality" seems like an arbitrary term to throw around, when theme parks already offer simulator rides and 4D theaters—does adding a headset fundamentally change the experience? But if these attractions catch on, they could give people a new way to live out the fantasies that Disney, Warner Brothers, and other companies have used to build multi-billion dollar empires. And to companies like The Void, VR isn’t just a new technology. It’s the key to building another world.

As futuristic as something like The Void feels, we’ve been on this ride before before. In the early 1990s, companies large and small started mixing VR experiences with real-world attractions, putting a new spin on arcades and theme parks. And the idea started growing long before then.

In the late 1970s, two teenage students at the Merchant Marine Academy in New York — Jordan Weisman and Ross Babcock — saw their first training simulator. The sim was a crude and extraordinarily expensive re-creation of a ship’s bridge, designed to help pilots learn to steer. But in it, they could see the future of entertainment: a world where instead of going to see a science fiction movie, someone could buy a ticket and step onto a starship, joining a crew of like-minded participants.

Inspired, Babcock and Weisman dropped out of the program, wired together a series of Apple II computers and attempted to imitate the multi-million dollar military system. "It’s a good way to fry motherboards," Weisman recalls. "But we saw a glimpse of what we could get." Investors didn’t agree, so the two put the dream aside and founded a company called the FASA Corporation, which produced some of the 1980s’ most beloved board and tabletop games: titles like MechWarrior, Shadowrun, and Crimson Skies.

Eventually, FASA’s games had earned the pair enough money to revisit their original idea. With Babcock and his father Morton, Jordan Weisman founded Virtual World Entertainment, its name evoking a freshly coined term for a science fictional idea: virtual reality.

Virtual World built a series of cockpit-like pods with complicated physical controls and put them in what the company called a BattleTech Center, the first of which launched in Chicago in 1990. While spectators watched on televisions outside, players could pay $6 to $8 and pilot a three-story robot through a 10-minute firefight. Enclosed in the pod, they would look through a video screen and see an endless alien desert, inhabited only by their teammates’ and opponents’ mechs. Despite its name, Virtual World consciously avoided the head-mounted displays that define VR today. "When you strap this big stupid thing to your head—and back in those days, it was an even bigger, stupider thing—you look like a fool to everybody else," says Weisman now. "One of the things you don’t want to do when you’re going out for an evening of entertainment is look stupid."

On their own, BattleTech pods were more like arcade cabinets than rides—a few "outposts" found their way into the restaurant and arcade chain Dave & Busters. But with funding from Tim Disney (Walt’s grand-nephew), VWE imagined building larger centers with a range of games that would appeal to everyone, somewhere between a high-tech arcade and an indoor amusement park. In 1993, the company opened a Pasadena-based Virtual World Center adorned with proto-steampunk decor from a fictional "Virtual Geographic Society," complete with a bar and restaurant.

By the mid-’90s, VWE was just one example of companies building VR-related entertainment centers, from Sega’s GameWorks arcade to the more theme park-like Iwerks Cinetropolis. UK-based inventor Jonathan Waldern was selling his Virtuality headsets as stand-alone VR arcade machines. And Disney—the big one—had taken notice. Around 1990, the Walt Disney Company assigned its Imagineering R&D group a secret mission: to—as team member Bill Redmann now puts it—"demonstrate, at any cost, a Disney-quality VR."

Its first attempt was one of the coolest-sounding theme park rides to never see the light of day. Imagineering looked at Disney’s upcoming movie slate and chose The Rocketeer, a retro-futuristic superhero movie that, fortuitously, put its hero in a giant helmet. Players would sit on a stool and suit up with realistic-looking haptic "jetpack" and a fingerless leather glove with a throttle, and an attendant would offer them a replica of the movie’s golden helmet. At the last minute, they’d switch it out for a bug-eyed simulator helmet mounted from the ceiling, and players would go flying off in virtual reality. But the project, with its expensive military-grade tech, was deemed too hard to put in a park.

It would take a few more years for the public to see virtual reality, Disney-style. In 1994, the Epcot Center opened an Aladdin magic carpet ride, putting visitors in a custom headset that resembled an alligator’s snout. Then, in 1998, the company launched a full indoor theme park devoted to interactive rides: DisneyQuest, located at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The first location, which housed attractions based on properties like the film Hercules and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, was soon followed by another one in Chicago.

The Orlando DisneyQuest drew steady crowds, but its successor in Chicago quickly stalled, until Disney shut it down and scrapped plans for a third center in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Virtual World had overestimated how quickly it could grow—the big Virtual World Centers hadn’t done appreciably better than their smaller progenitors, while leaving the company with higher upkeep costs. After Microsoft bought FASA’s computer gaming operation in 1999, the centers gradually shut down.

In fact, it was a bad time for almost any location-based entertainment, whether or not it was strictly "VR." Iwerks opened just two of its proposed 30 Cinetropolis locations before losing so much money it dropped the idea. A much-hyped Sony entertainment center in San Francisco slowly morphed into an ordinary mall. The Dave & Busters chain kept some BattleTech pods running for a while, but even that damned the idea in its own way. VR wasn’t a new medium—it was just another attraction in the back of a restaurant.

Decades later, both BattleTech and DisneyQuest have had a long—if limited—half-life. The Orlando DisneyQuest remains open after nearly 20 years, and BattleTech’s pods retain a cult following and resale market, years after the original centers’ demise. But until the Oculus Rift jump-started virtual reality development in 2012, it was an idea that belonged firmly in the past.

If you were to pick a place for one of the world’s hottest virtual reality attractions, there are more likely cities than Lindon, Utah, the Void’s home base. Around 40 miles south of Salt Lake City, Lindon is nestled in the flatland between Utah Lake and the southern end of the Wasatch Mountains. Much of its architecture is so aggressively nondescript that The Void’s offices could be housing anything from a dentist’s office to a top-secret government facility. Once we’re inside, though, there’s no doubt it’s the right place. The Void prints its logo on absolutely everything: the walls, the floors, the packing crates, the giant inverted black pyramid hanging from the rafters. When CEO Ken Bretschneider greets us, it’s in the same Void t-shirt we see on almost everyone in the office, a baseball cap pulled over his slightly shaggy blond hair.

The Void evolved out of plans for a steampunk theme park called Evermore, conceived by Bretschneider and his partner Curtis Hickman. While laying the groundwork, they hired a visual effects director named James Jensen for help. Jensen pitched a longtime dream: an experience that would map a virtual world over real space. By 2015, the three had abandoned the traditional park idea and announced The Void, where they now share executive duties.

The Void is one of a few companies trying to sell visitors on big, walkable VR worlds. Its main competitor is Australian company Zero Latency, which plans to open a location in Tokyo next month, and the lower-profile American company Vyocor is considering a similar project. Landmark Entertainment Group expects to open a "LIVE Center" full of VR attractions in China next year. In a broader sense, it’s also competing against location-based entertainment like laser tag, haunted houses, and "escape the room" games. The Void’s creators, though, say they’re offering something that’s never been done.

The experience of The Void starts with a custom "Rapture" VR headset and backpack computer, built in partnership with several outside engineering companies. Rapture is a souped-up version of consumer virtual reality gear, wired to a haptic vest that simulates everything from an exploding wall to the tickle of spiders. The hardware specifics vary by experience: Ghostbusters’ headset is a modified Oculus Rift DK2, with the promise of The Void’s more advanced design down the line, and the team created a prop proton pack gun that players hold throughout the experience. In Utah, the headsets are full custom hardware, embedded with working Leap Motion hand-tracking sensors. For now, everything else is tracked by cameras located above the stage, but the team is working on a more accurate radio frequency-based system called Spire.

The company’s biggest achievement, though, is simultaneously more sophisticated and lower-tech. Every Void experience takes place on a custom-built stage, undergirding the virtual experience with real heft. Press a button, and you’ll feel it under your fingers; sit in a chair, and it will hold your weight. The farther you go, the more fantastical things become. The underground lake in Curse of the Serpent’s Eye exudes real mist that cools your face; when the serpent jumps at you, a platform lifts you out of its reach, convincingly rumbling under your feet.

But when you take off the headset, your Mayan temple turns into a monochrome shadow world. In the game, I held a torch to a stone door, which blew up in my face to open a passage. But the stage I was on has no doors—instead, there’s a permanent gap in the corner of the room, one I never noticed while running my hands along the walls. What, I ask Hickman, was I actually doing?

He doesn’t exactly answer me, but he gives a general explanation: I was being distracted. "The idea is just to direct people away from the method—from the thing you don’t want them to see." Hickman is a veteran magician who performs as "The Amazing Curtis" — and virtual worlds are his ultimate illusion. One of The Void’s most remarkable tricks is something called redirected walking: players walk down what they see as straight corridors, but the stage’s walls are subtly curved, nudging them in circles to make short paths feel endless.

By combining virtual and physical experiences, The Void’s creators promise a "hyper-reality" far more transportive than normal virtual reality. Visitors seem to agree. The company’s YouTube channel includes testimonials from the likes of Aaron Paul, who calls it "easily the greatest experience, truly, I’ve ever had" — which, coming from a man who starred in Breaking Bad, is saying something.

But when I try it, the Void — in both Ghostbusters and Curse of the Serpent’s Eye — is grasping at something it hasn’t yet reached. The haptic vest and headset are too big for me, so I’m constantly reminded of their presence. In the temple, my virtual hand keeps accidentally warping away from its proper location to stick to the torch, even when my partner’s holding it. The redirected walking is interesting, but I don’t remember traveling radically farther than I actually have; it’s actually far less surreal than a non-VR art installation I’ve experienced elsewhere. More importantly, everything I can do just reminds me of what I can’t. I can feel the rough stone of the walls, but I can’t trace the elaborate carvings on them. Heat emanates from a brazier where I light a torch, but not the torch itself. At one point, I’m convinced that I should jump off a ledge, but there’s no fall — someone just pulls me back.

None of these stop the experience from being fun, clever, and a little uncanny — and some of the issues only appear when you’re given time to take a breath and explore the world, which the fast-paced Ghostbusters experience doesn’t allow. "I think you don’t have to have it 100 percent," says Bretschneider. When the Void’s beta testers feel something approximating a wall, he says, they’re satisfied — especially when special effects like mist and heat come into play. "It kind of reinforces to the brain that it’s real enough." And as the technology improves, they’ll have to start deciding how real they want things to get.

Right now, none of The Void’s special effects can produce much more than psychological discomfort. But Hickman says that if they used the haptic vests’ full force, the team could make things like a shooting game where you’re genuinely worried about getting hit — not because it would cause permanent harm, but because it would be distinctly unpleasant, like a paintball shot. "Someday I kind of hope we get there, in a place where we can have real, almost punishing feedback for decisions and things that you do, without us being sued into the ground."

But that’s a long way off, because right now, nobody knows what the Void will become. Its first appearance will be in the form of small, linear "attraction stages," like Curse of the Serpent’s Eye and Ghostbusters. Bretschneider says they’ve established a solid way to get enough paying customers through: put groups of two or three players in at once, wait for them to clear a segment of the experience, then send in the next group right behind them. The experiences would change over time, and players could earn points that would apply across different attractions, creating a single avatar that could be adapted to each setting.

This, however, is just the first step. The Void’s final goal is a series of large, theme park-like regional centers filled with what the team calls "dimension stages" — open-ended experiences in a space four times as big as the 30 x 30-foot Ghostbusters stage, capable of holding between 10 and 12 people at a time. The dimension stages sound a bit like a complex live-action role-playing session, or maybe non-traditional theater like Sleep No More, both of which Hickman says he looks to for inspiration. They could be anything from a spaceship simulation to a high-fantasy world.

The closest I got to a dimension stage was a plastic model of a maze, resting on a coffee table in the company’s Utah warehouse. The team has never built one, nor have they started building any of the centers that would hold them. And while it’s not hard to see how a movie-themed experience could flourish in an already popular location, it’s harder to draw a path from there to a full-fledged theme park. The Void Centers aren’t necessarily doomed to the same rise and fall as the BattleTech Centers or other ‘90s projects, and VR in general is a safer bet now than it was 25 years ago. But the company’s founders admit they’re taking a big risk — even if they’re confident it’s a worthwhile one.

"With how much the world is turning to their computers and being social through their computers, and being stuck with these screens, I find it a comfort to know that we’re going to provide them a social outlet that will give them an opportunity to get out of their house, still be embedded and involved with technology, yet socially connected to the people around them," says Hickman. "To me, that’s something that the world wants, and I’m going to give [it to] them."

It’s a slightly paradoxical idea: that people will drive to an entertainment center to escape being social through their computers, only to put the computers right back on once they arrive. It banks on The Void’s stages to add something unique enough that people will keep coming once the novelty wears off, as it did with Virtual World.

Today, though, they’re looking toward virtual reality to make everything old seem new again.

Virtual reality may be an even better bet at locations that already attract crowds of thrill seekers. No matter where you are at the Six Flags in Maryland, you can see the Superman - Ride of Steel roller coaster. Built in 1999, the coaster climbs to 208 feet on its first ascent, a red steel ridge that rises above everything else in the park. In reality, that first descent takes you down at a 68 degree angle, reaching a top speed of 73 miles an hour. It’s a steep drop, sure, but my experience was a little more intense. I had a Samsung Gear VR headset strapped on, blocking out my view of the real world, immersing me in a virtual scene synced to the ride. As the train car was climbing, Lex Luthor lifted me above a skyscraper while Superman battled laser wielding robots. And then, when the train car took its first fall, the 68 degree drop was transformed into a sheer 90 degree plunge, amplifying the terror to new heights.

The graphics you see inside this virtual experience aren't great. They reminded me of PC games from at least five years ago. After all, the system is powered by a stock Samsung smartphone, an S6 no different than the one you or I might carry in our pockets. There is no high end gaming PC with a top notch graphics card tucked underneath your seat. But relatively simplistic graphics become utterly convincing once the ride really gets going, and the physical forces of the coaster — the weightlessness during free fall, the four and a half Gs around the turn — perfectly match the visual storyline.

Virtual reality companies pride themselves on the ability to create a sense of "presence," a physical belief that you are actually in another world. The cliche example is to present a user with a virtual cliff. If they know it’s not real, but still can’t bring themselves to walk off, then the system has done its job, tricking the lizard part of their brain, instilling their body with belief in the simulation. Adding physical effects to virtual reality makes it much easier to achieve presence, or heighten the actual experience, what The Void has branded "hyper-reality."

For theme parks, virtual reality offers a tantalizing opportunity: convert old rides into new experiences without having to spend millions on materials and construction. Take "The Revolution", a forty year old coaster at Six Flag’s Magic Mountain location in California. Once upon a time it was the world’s tallest coaster, and the first with a complete loop, an innovative and award winning design. But it only took a few years before competitors built taller coasters and bigger loops. Compared to the coasters designed today, the Revolution looks quaint.

"With VR, we can take a coaster like that, and make it feel truly revolutionary again," says Sam Rhodes, Six Flags corporate head of ride design. "Since we’ve added the virtual reality element to The Revolution, ridership has tripled."

Theme parks have been moving in the direction of virtual reality for years, driven by the media portfolios of their corporate parents. Six Flags has a long history with Time Warner, and it competes with parks from Walt Disney and NBCUniversal. "VR has the potential to really change the business," said Tyler Batory, an industry analyst specializing in theme parks. "The fact that you can change the theme of the coaster to match the season or the movie is way better than building a brand new coaster. You take a ride that’s old, visitors don’t really like it that much anymore, something like VR can breathe a lot of new life into it."

I asked Rhodes what he thought of experiences like The Void. He had tried it himself, and acknowledged that it was worked well as an immersive experience, but was skeptical of the business model. It would be hard, he said, to turn a profit charging people for just that experience, especially if people only went through in small groups, with each session lasting five minutes or more. At Madame Tussauds in New York, The Void costs $20 on top of a ticket for the wax museum, for a 15 minute experience that can fit only three people at a time. "Ours is part of the ticket price, and it’s every seat on every train, so that’s a lot of people."

At the event organized by Six Flags, I met a group of hardcore riders who were also invited along to try the Superman ride. They were from the American Coaster Enthusiasts, a non-profit group whose mission is simply to ride and enjoy as many roller coasters as they can. Initially, the members seemed skeptical of VR’s place in a theme park. "Honestly, I thought it was gonna be a cheap gimmick," said Matthew Ferrell. But after riding the Superman VR experience 20 times in one morning, he came away a believer. "I really came in thinking it would be nice, but not expecting to love it, and it turned me in a positive way I didn’t see coming. You get completely pulled out of your world and pushed into this other world where everything looks and feels real. It felt like a movie, but I wasn’t a passive participant, I was there, being saved."

The experiences currently being built for theme parks, malls, movie theaters, and arcades will act as an catalyst for the still nascent virtual reality industry. "I would be willing to guess Six Flags will put more people through VR for the first time over the next few years than anyone," says Rhodes. "We estimate 7 million people will ride VR coasters with us this year alone." That compares with around one million monthly active users of Samsung’s Gear VR, the last metric the company shared. Given the high bar for owning a HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, it’s a safe bet that far more people will try room scale VR for the first time outside their own home, likely by visiting an experience like The Void or Zero Latency.

Companies like The Void will also give consumers a taste of the near future, a first glimpse of the kind of technology that will trickle down to the home after a few years. VR headsets sold directly to consumers are limited by a price most people can afford. The Void, by contrast, plans to spend as much as $10,000 on a single headset so that it can deliver a high end experience worth the price of admission.

Theme parks and the like won’t just be testbeds for consumers to experience the bleeding edge of VR. They will also likely be the first to introduce consumers to VR’s more complex cousin, augmented reality. Right now most AR experiences involve bulky headsets with a limited field of view. But as the technology continues to get cheaper, smaller, and more powerful, new experiences will be possible. "You’ll see the normal coaster, as it is, but you’ll have a monster attacking the rails," says Thomas Wagner, CEO of VR Coaster, which built the technology Six Flags is using at its parks.

There is tradeoff with these two mediums between immersion and isolation, between losing yourself in a fantasy and the alienating experience in a headset. I sat next to our cameraman on the Superman coaster, but in VR, the seat next to mine was empty. One of the big promises from companies like The Void is that you can share the experience with friends. During the Ghostbusters experience, it worked really well. I could see my teammates and work in tandem with them, crossing the streams on our proton packs when it was time to take out the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Zero Latency offers a souped up version of laser tag, letting you battle hordes of zombies with friends you can see in virtual space.

It’s all strange, heady stuff. But in a best-case scenario, we’ll be looking back in 20 years from some new plateau of immersiveness, trying to remember why touching a gritty wall in a headset seemed like a transcendent experience.

"I look forward to that, actually," says The Void’s Curtis Hickman. "I feel like we’re in the early days of video games here, where we’ve got these sprite sheets jumping around on a screen and people are like, this is mind blowing, you know." But beneath it all are the fundamental rules of magic—and magic, he says, never changes. "The gimmick of it, the idea ‘Ooh I’m in VR and I’m moving around, that’ll get old, that’ll become normal. But this effect of genuinely feeling like you’re somewhere else, because the illusion design has made you feel that way—I don’t know if that will ever go away."

It’s hard to know if companies like The Void will thrive as businesses. Even if visitors find the experiences extraordinary, the combination of steep prices, short experiences, and relatively small numbers may not pan out. But it seems almost certain that whatever virtual reality’s place in mass culture, it will find a place outside the home.

The novelty of the newest tech will always wear off when the next generation of hardware eclipses it. But you can’t quite simulate the drop in your stomach when you plunge off a real cliff, or the experience of real heat on your skin and wind in your hair. Until people start building coasters in their backyards or converting their living rooms into fun houses full of props, there will be a certain magic that is only available when you actually get off the couch.

Produced by Frank Bi

Lead image & design by James Bareham

Photography by Tom Connors and Miriam Nielsen

Edited by Michael Zelenko