The New York Times is using it. So is the White House. But virtual reality has yet to become truly mainstream. A new form of destination entertainment could help.
By Eric Kester
Chris Madsen had been searching for an elusive sensation for more than 20 years and now, as he stepped through twinkling dust particles in an abandoned hallway, he sensed he was close. Madsen, a virtual-reality expert for consumer news site Road to VR, stepped through an open door and found himself balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff. Inching forward, he peered over the precipice. A hundred metres below, crags jutted through an olive-green haze. His jacket snapped in a wind that, in an almost consciously benevolent act, pushed him back from certain doom.
Weak-kneed, Madsen flipped up his virtual-reality headset, instantly returning to a 10-by-10-metre sound stage in the Void, a real-life VR playground about 20 kilometres south of Salt Lake City. Short for the Vision of Infinite Dimensions, the Void is a physical arena for virtual reality that, when overlaid with graphics from a headset, transforms into a fully traversable gaming environment. There are special effects from wind machines, water sprinklers (to simulate rain) and heat sources (fire). Madsen is one of 2 000 beta testers trying out the Void in advance of its opening later this year. His task: to determine whether the 3,8 million viewers of the Void’s preview on YouTube will finally experience the future of virtual reality that continually seems to arrive but never quite materialises – true presence, rather than just viewing a scene through a headset while sitting on a couch.
“Anyone can feel immersion when there’s a 360-degree environment and it feels kind of like you’re there,” Madsen says. “Presence is different. It’s as though there’s a switch thrown so that suddenly you are in this new dimension. It’s so intense that the primal part of your brain won’t even let you take a step off a virtual cliff.” Madsen says one of the most important requirements for achieving presence is the ability to physically move. It was this idea that inspired Void co-founder and CEO Ken Bretschneider. A former digital artist/fine artist for the 1994 flight-simulator game VR Stalker, Bretschneider sold his cyber-security company in 2012 and began investing heavily (he won’t say how much, but reports suggest upward of R180 million) in his plan to develop something better. Even from the outset, Bretschneider saw that weak technology such as limited peripheral views and unrealistic audio quality on current consumer-grade VR headsets would be an obstacle to his project’s success. The Void team began developing its own Rapture-branded technology (see above) to supplement what was available.
Bretschneider also scoured the world of technology for a way to track multiple players across a virtual field without “confusion”, a glitch in which optical trackers switch adjacent people. The team considered camera-based, laser-based and electromagnetic tracking systems, but none was good enough. “Then I found an article about NASA using radio frequencies to track their rovers,” Bretschneider says. The Void team customised the NASA model and can now track a body with an accuracy of less than a millimetre.
Rapture head-mounted display has dual curved OLED displays with 2K-
One of several handheld add-ons featuring haptic feedback. There is also a pump-action gun with two triggers.
Rapture backtop vest
Provides four different types of haptic feedback for laser and bullet impacts.
The confined space was another problem. Even on a 20-by-20-metre stage (the size of the completed arenas), the freedom to run or walk anywhere in a virtual world appeared impossible to attain. That is, until Void chief creative officer Curtis Hickman, an illusionist who has worked on magic effects for David Copperfield, invented the Infinite Hallway. This trick takes advantage of a peculiar human flaw in which, if you take away visual and hearing cues (using a headset, for example) and then ask a person to walk in a straight line, he will naturally walk in circles. This is not to say that there are no sceptics. Kevin Williams, a colleague of Madsen’s at Road to VR, expressed concern about the tracking system, at least in the early stages of development. Online VR forums, meanwhile, have seen a number of potential users question whether the yet-to-be-unveiled Rapture equipment can live up to its lofty specs.
Is this just the next in a long line of VR companies that overpromise and underperform?
“I understand where they’re coming from,” Bretschneider says. “Is the Void perfected yet? No. But we’ve had a 100 per cent satisfaction rate in two open beta tests that put nearly 2 000 people through our experiences.” After feeling literal heat from a virtual fire, real moisture wafting from a cyber cave and genuine fear from peering over a cliff that doesn’t exist, Madsen says he believes that the castle of dreams Bretschneider has built represents a step forward in the inevitable widespread adoption of virtual reality. The technology works. The funding is set. The only question is whether we’ll get off the couch and use it.
Not-So-Impressive Moments in Virtual Reality History
• The Virtuix Omni
This treadmill shown at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show allows users to play a first-person speed-shooter game while strapp-ed into a baby-bouncer-esque harness. Real cool, guys.
This new game from Starship Group has the Guitar Hero problem. Why spend hours perfecting your cooking skills on a pretend platform with inedible graphics when you could just, you know, cook?
• VRoom Service
Guests at some Marriott hotels can order a loaner VR headset to explore exotic destinations, such as an “ice cream shop in Rwanda” from their rooms. Maybe go outside instead? – Lara Sorokanich
This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.