For decades science fiction writers have been painting worlds of virtual reality. Stories like “Lawnmower Man,” “The Matrix,” and more recently Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” tell of characters immersed in virtual worlds, many so advanced as to be indistinguishable from real life. Perhaps the most ambitious fictional example of this technology is the Holodeck from “Star Trek.” Within the confines of that room, the masterwork cross section of science and entertainment, intangible energy becomes tangible matter. The worlds are tactile and as endless as the possibilities they offer. It’s easy to see why such a room would be appealing even in the age of faster than light travel and interplanetary civilization.
Video game developers have been trying to figure out how to provide a VR experience for almost as long as the idea has been in the public consciousness. Twenty years ago Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a 3D video game system consisting of a pair of goggles on a stand and a wired controller. It provided black and red vector graphics that left most users feeling disoriented and nauseated. They had the right idea but the technology hadn’t caught up to the ambition.
Game graphics have improved tremendously since 1995 bordering on photorealism and many believe the time is ripe to give virtual reality another shot, those efforts are just beginning to see the light of day. The Oculus Rift, the current gold standard in VR headsets, while promising, is still in the testing phase and not yet available to the public. Even coupled with 360 degree treadmills you’re not going to get the tactile real life experience promised by so many books and movies, though that’s not to say the prospect isn’t exhilarating. While virtual reality is beginning to take its first real steps into existence, the technology needed to create something like the Holodeck, Matrix, or Oasis seem well beyond our grasp at the moment, products of a future not quite here.
Most would be content to watch the technology unfold, trusting that in time it will arrive, but a small startup in Lindon, Utah isn’t content to wait around. They’ve launched a facility called The Void that promises tactile full immersion virtual reality not in the 23rd century, but today. I had a chance to visit their facility and play a demo of what they’ll be offering.
First things first, let’s address the digital elephant in the virtual room. The video you just watched is a concept, that is their end game, what they hope to achieve when they’re fully up and running. The game I got to play titled “Dimension One” is one of two scenarios they are currently running in Beta as proof of concept. It wasn’t as pretty or as expansive as what the above video promises but it isn’t hyperbolic to say it was the best virtual experience I have ever had. If they can deliver even half of what their concept video promises competitors will be sprinting to catch up.
The Void achieves the immersive tactile experience by building a physical environment complete with walls and interactive constructs and then builds a digital world on top of it. Think laser tag with a VR headset. Upon first entering the facility users are provided with a backpack housing a slim but powerful computer that runs the simulation and a headset. At current The Void is using the Rift headset but are developing their own that promises 180 degrees of visuals at 4k resolution. The ceiling is dotted with motion capture cameras that track your movements through the environment down to individual finger movements.
Author’s note: For anyone participating in a future Beta at The Void you may want to skip the next few paragraphs as they contain spoilers of one of the experiences. It is probably safe to say this particular game won’t be available once the facility is up and running next summer so if you’re waiting until The Void opens in earnest, read on.
A few seconds after the headset is pulled over your eyes the game boots up. Users find themselves in what is called The Ether, a blank white space that precedes the actual environment. You are instructed to look down at your hands which, at the moment, are basic in structure, little more than detached free floating skeletons. But what they lack in definition is made up for in real time response. Moving a single finger is met with corresponding movements on the display. Then electricity crackles and a portal opens up in the emptiness, through the portal is an ancient temple.
Stepping through the portal brings the rest of the world all around you. A voice, the guide, tells you to take a seat and you see a stone bench a few feet ahead. This is when things start to get weird; you’ve never had a gaming experience like this before. You walk toward the bench and reach out to it, when your skeletal hand reaches the stone you can actually feel it. This is because there really is a bench in front of you, it isn’t made of stone and it isn’t centuries old, but it’s there, you can sit on it.
A moment later you’re walking toward the entrance of the temple, trying to move slowly, to take in your surroundings, but excited to move ahead. Just before the entrance of the temple there is a lit torch hanging on the wall, you reach out to pick it up and your hand, your real hand, wraps around it. It slides out of its holder and you move ahead.
This combination of immersive visuals, sounds, and tactile stimuli quickly brings you into the environment. There is simply nothing else for your brain to take in, all external stimuli save for what the game gives you is suppressed by way of the headset. Heaters and fans are placed at strategic locations if you approach a heat source or open air you feel the corresponding heat or cold. This amount of immersion alone is enough to sell you on the experience, the top half of your head covered in gear, the bottom half curled into a rictus grin, but there’s more.
After several turns through stone corridors you reach a podium in front of an antiquated wooden lift, there is a lit handprint on the podium and you reach out to touch it. When you do the lift activates and you feel yourself lifting off the ground to a higher level. The sensation is convincing enough that you lurch backward involuntarily, fearful you’ll fall into the pool currently descending farther and farther away from you to be churned up by the massive waterfall feeding it.
At this point you remind yourself that what you’re experiencing isn’t real but your brain won’t listen, you’ve been effectively tricked. This is what you want; this is the virtual experience we’ve been promised for decades. It’s here, it’s happening, you just have to go along for the ride.
A few minutes later it’s over and you’re back in the real world. All told I spent about twenty minutes inside The Void and when I was done I had a myriad of questions, the most pressing of which was “can I go again?”
I was surprised to find that when I had finished I was in a room no larger than thirty feet by thirty feet. It turns out I had walked in a circle about four times, the digital world building itself anew with each turn. It was also abundantly clear that there was no elevator, I was still on the same level at which I had begun. I asked how they had accomplished the sensation of lifting and I was met with a rather nebulous answer but I’ll give you my best estimation.
First, a short lesson on false perception.
Reality, as we perceive it, is constructed in our minds by way of our senses and some of those senses take precedence over others, a good example of this is the McGurk effect. This effect happens when visual stimuli doesn’t mesh up with what you’re hearing. You’re brain tries to compensate and feeds you something that is ultimately incorrect for both stimuli. Check out the below video to see what I mean.
Another example takes us the world of wine tasting. In 2001 a PhD candidate named Frederic Brochet did an experiment with 46 respected wine tasters over the course of two tasting sessions. In the first session he gave the tasters a glass of red wine and a glass of white wine and asked them to describe them. The tasters used words that are traditionally associated with the wines they were tasting. In the second session he did the same thing, only this time the “red” wine was really the same white wine with tasteless food coloring added. The tasters who had the “red” wine overwhelmingly described it as a red.
It’s important to note that these weren’t random people off the street, they weren’t uninitiated, and most importantly, they weren’t lying. They were fooled, not by Brochet, but by their own minds. These two examples tell us something important about how our brains work, namely that it can be pretty easily fooled because it’s a stupid meat machine forged in the evolutionary fires of yesteryear. Your brain is much more concerned with survival than it is anything else and when it comes to survival one sense wins out above all others, vision.
The developers at The Void have taken this fact, whether they know it or not, and exploited it. Though in this case your senses aren’t in conflict, all of them are telling you the same thing, you are walking through a temple, you are holding a torch, you are rising off the ground, and your stupid fleshy mind, concerned only with not falling into a hole, tells you it is real, to stunning effect.
While the reality of what The Void currently has to offer still isn’t quite Holodeck material, as a proof of concept they’ve delivered on an immersive tactile virtual experience. If you’re in Utah, or even willing to travel, it would be in your best interest to visit their site and sign up for their news letter. They will keep you apprised of any future Beta tests and it’s well worth the ten dollars and the commute time to get there just to get a glimpse of what’s coming.