Joseph Smith was assassinated in 1844 by an armed mob in Carthage, Illinois. He was the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (or Mormonism), a man who had fled the state of New York accused of bank fraud, and was believed by some to be performing miracles.
Fast forward 172 years later. Curtis Hickman, also a Mormon, is one of the co-founders of The VOID, a virtual reality theme park located in Salt Lake City. So, does the future of entertainment live up to its promise? Is it a new technological miracle? Will Curtis Hickman be taken down for charlatanism?
Early February, I flew to Utah to shoot a report about The VOID for ARTE TV’s show Tracks. Loosely inspired by the visions of The Matrix and Star Trek’s holodeck, The VOID (or Visions Of Infinite Dimensions) blends the fun of haunted house rides with virtual reality into a fully ‘5D’ immersive experience stimulating the senses: smell, touch, (binaural) sound and vision of virtual worlds using a headset (I’m still wondering about the fifth dimension).
Scheduled to open in the third quarter of 2016 in Salt Lake City and later in Shanghai, The VOID will offer audiences, at the cost of 35 dollars for half an hour, the opportunity to explore eight immersive rooms, including an abandoned Mayan temple and an alien spaceship, as well as other undisclosed franchises prepped for multiplayer mode — PvP or coop.
One day before the shoot, about to celebrate my 30th birthday in the new promised land, I was still hesitating between hiring the services of an escort from utahdollhouse.com or going for a bad case of Tinder Thumb. As a good Christian, I chose the second option, and got to meet Lilith (name changed), 28, whose profile read LDS (acronym of ‘Latter Day Saints’, i.e. Mormon), like every other single woman from Salt Lake City on Tinder who’s managed to avoid polygamy.
Lilith is divorced and has two children, loves neuroscience and death. Looks like luck is on my side, as the next day, I’ll be entering The VOID. As a first date, I offer her to try out the ultimate virtual reality experience and be seen by millions of Europeans (okay, thousands). She accepts.
The Best Little Warehouse in Utah
The VOID is located in the wider Salt Lake City area, a few miles away from Bonneville Salt Flats, a salt pan speedway where various types of vehicles gather to attempt breaking land speed records. Upon reaching the VOID’s unassuming building set amongst a landscape of industrial warehouses, we feel a little disappointed.
My cameraman Aron and I have trouble finding something worth filming outdoors. We finally resign ourselves to shoot a road sign covered in snow on the dull suburban road. And as backdrop, the Wasatch mountains surrounding the city, to illustrate the perfect contrast between the majestic nature and The VOID.
Lilith is late, her face covered in heavy make-up. I try kissing her on the cheeks, but only get half-hugged in return. She doesn’t exactly look like in her Tinder pictures, but enough like Inception‘s Ellen Page to remain attractive.
Inside a huge dark room, we discover a labyrinth of black walls about five feet high. Dozens of cameras are fixed on the ceiling to enable user tracking, while a dozen of white spheric balls are mounted on the headsets and accessories to perfectly position the user inside the virtual world. Karen, who walks us through The VOID, tells me the system is temporary, and will soon be replaced by another using embedded sensors.
Aron and I suggest shooting Lilith’s immersion like a Batman choreography, combining short poses as when the superhero dons his costume. It’s time to gear up. Lilith grabs the backtop, a backpack holding a lightweight laptop with a powerful graphics card, plugged into a haptic feedback vest. Karen shows us the new model, supposed to be four times smaller and three times more powerful.
The upcoming Rapture headset, developed by the team at The VOID, will feature a curved OLED screen with a 120° FOV and 2K resolution for each eye, running at 90 FPS. Unfortunately, this latest generation gear isn’t available today, most of the prototypes having been sent off to the TED conference in Vancouver, where The VOID is holding its first public demo. Today, Lilith will be wearing a vintage Oculus DK2 topped by a Leap Motion sensor taped to the front to track her Mormon hands.
Thanks to this custom-made gear, The VOID promises ‘virtual body ownership’ — in academic VR jargon, the faithful reproduction of one’s body in the virtual space. Lilith’s first reaction is to check how her virtual hands are represented. In doing so, part of her brain accepts the immersion. The rest of the body isn’t simulated in VR, just digitally rendered as a space suit that doesn’t interact with her body.
I ask Lilith to start Experience Number 1. Much as in a past life regression session, I question her about what she sees, like a therapist blind to the inner experience of his patient. She tells me she’s inside an abandoned spaceship. Holding a laser machine gun, she moves forward inside the hallways, soon being met by alien spiders (I had forgotten to warn her; luckily, she didn’t have a heart attack).
Further on, she reaches a balcony where she is attacked by dozens of drones. Overwhelmed, Lilith tries to battle them with her hands to no avail, as her virtual body hasn’t been programmed for that. While she was rather convinced by the immersion in empty hallways, she tells me her mind stopped believing the second the creatures appeared, with their repetitive, predictable pre-programmed behavior. Had she been in front of her computer screen, she wouldn’t have minded that aspect so much; but in full immersion, her mind wasn’t fooled by the weak AI, behind which she could sense the hand of the programmer. In other words, the illusion of reality was broken.
After a final scare jump of an alien corpse breaking free from a glass container, Experience #1 comes to an end. Lilith removes the Oculus headset to realize she has been followed during her whole virtual immersion by a cameraman (holding an impressive camera), a sound engineer (holding a long boom), and myself (holding a portable spotlight). I immediately ask her about her first impressions, but she somehow feels disconcerted by the return to reality.
From the Pledge to the Prestige
We then start filming the interview of Curtis Hickman, The VOID’s creative director. Son of Tracy Hickman, an author of D&D-type role playing games and bestselling heroic fantasy novels, Curtis also stems from an unlikely background. As a multi-awarded illusionist, he has designed illusions for David Copperfield and Chris Angel before becoming a visual effects designer. For The VOID, he has chosen to fuse both talents.
In every magic trick, there are three acts. The first is called the Pledge: the magician shows you something ordinary, like a deck of cards, and asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed normal. At The VOID, the Pledge resides in the staging of the future park’s architecture (which will be mostly indoors). The hallways are decorated with objects and sculptures pertaining to the various virtual worlds. The subtlety lies in displaying several versions of a same sculpture with more and more realistic finishes.
In Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection, there’s a sequence where Ripley enters the lab room in which the previous seven aborted attempts to clone her are on display, a scene the crazy Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek calls “an ontology of unfinished reality”. At The VOID, Curtis Hickman chose this incompletion to gradually prepare our perception of an object until we slip on the headset, the final moment when our brain merges the real and the virtual. He calls this the path of conviction.
The second act of an illusion is called the Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. This is the moment the user dons the gear and headset, and starts diving into virtuality. From the first minutes, Lilith, just like everyone else, started looking for the secrets behind the magic, feeling for the walls, trying to test the limits of the illusion.
Deep inside, she isn’t convinced she really wants to know the secret. Like in a magic trick, all she wants is to be captivated by the illusion. After her experience, when I ask her what distance she believes she’s walked, she answers a quarter of a mile, in a straight line. Actually, she’s been walking in circles no more than 30 meters.
Because making something disappear is not enough, every illusion has a third act: the Prestige, where the magician brings the object back. Curtis Hickman tells us that after they remove the headset and keep repeating “wow”, visitors all try to compare the memory of the virtual world with the reality of the setting. Lilith finds it hard to believe that the amazing abandoned spaceship is nothing but a labyrinth of dark walls.
It’s a wrap. While the cameraman transfers the footage to the laptop, I finally find some time to try out The VOID. I pick Experience Number 2: the Mayan temple. Although I keep complaining about the Oculus DK2 headset always giving me headaches, my cynicism wears off the second I start the experience.
Immersed in rather convincingly rendered stone hallways, I move forward following the soft voice of a guide who hints at the zones I need to explore. On a wall, I find a torch and grab it. For a few minutes, I marvel at the light and shade effects on the surfaces.
I reach an overhang which opens on a waterfall. I can feel the humidity on my cheeks. The voice urges me to push a button I believe is only virtual. I hesitate at first, then push the button, marvelling at the near-perfect alignment between the real and virtual objects. An elevating platform takes me to the upper level. The feeling of elevation is so convincing that I try to remember if I had noticed an elevator on the set.
In the final part, when the stone ground starts collapsing just like at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I want to walk across the void, but my brain resists. When I finally remove the headset, I have this primal urge to go back, and stay inside the virtual world forever.
Ready Player One
After having done some extensive research for the report, interviewed Curtis in-depth about designing the experiences and filmed Lilith sneaking through the empty hallways, I am definitely convinced that The VOID achieves what virtual reality has kept promising us since the early days of the concept: a metaverse where technology makes it possible to reproduce fantasy worlds in a physically convincing simulation. I am now a convert to the Church of The VOID!
As for my interaction with Lilith, it ended on our third date, at the huge house of her millionaire parents, as she got caught up by the harsh reality of her divorce, trying to drown her sorrows in a cocktail of Xanax and vodka.