Disney Accelerator is an unassuming warehouse / office in Glendale, California, nestled among a cluster of buildings all dedicated to various functions of The Walt Disney Company’s creative empire. The Accelerator is a special program of Disney’s that helps new, groundbreaking companies achieve their goals in the marketplace, especially where new media is concerned.
One such company is The Void. They make virtual reality experiences beyond anything available in a home setting. They’ve been producing experiences based on Star Wars, and more recently Ghostbusters, but their first VR experience based on entirely original material is Nicodemus: The Demon of Evanishment.
The story is set in Chicago in 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition (the Chicago World’s Fair. Three days before the fair’s closing, a tragic demonstration in the Electro-Spiritualism Exhibit brings something terrible across the dimensional boundaries and into our world.
Word spreads that some unknown creature was luring guests down to an “Evanishment Room”, from which they never return. The attractions around the exhibit are quickly and quietly closed, but two months later, strange lights are seen coming from the abandoned exhibit hall. As participants, your task is to investigate the strange goings on and get to the bottom of the matter.
Before each Void experience, you watch an orientation video to set the scene for you. Then you’re asked to select a character card. Each one carries a rendition of what that character looks like and a little back story about that character. Before you enter the simulation, they scan your card and that tells the simulation which character model to use to represent you, so the other people in the session can recognize you on sight.
When you’re experiencing virtual reality at home, on your Occulus Rift or HTC Vive headset, you can see and hear the world around you. It’s extremely immersive, but it only stimulates two of the five senses. With the experiences at The Void, you get the sensations of touch and smell as well. Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment takes full advantage of this. You can operate machinery, solve puzzles by turning valves and selector wheels, and trigger animated haunted automatons in a museum of clever robots. When you put your hands on a valve wheel, you can feel it. When you reach out to touch a wall, it’s there. If there’s a bench, you can sit on it. When you walk through cobwebs, you feel them on your skin. When you see jets of steam, you can feel the cool mist on your skin and smell the mix of steam and machine oil in the air.
The Void uses customized headsets based on the Occulus Rift, combined with Leap Motion technology so that you can see your hands and what you’re doing in perfectly matched animated detail.
The experience is a surprisingly dense narrative, leading you on from one experience to another as you traverse from room to room. The sense of horror increases as you go, and there’s a surprise ending (which for obvious reasons we can’t reveal).
Shawn Crosby and Gene Turnbow of Krypton Radio were able to speak with Curtis Hickman, founder and CEO of The Void, and Tracy Hickman, his famous fantasy writer father, the man who wrote Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment.
Curtis Hickman: One of the things we’ve been talking about for a long time was doing a haunt experience, and I just jumped at the opportunity. It just sounded like too much fun.
Tracey Hickman: Curtis in particular has enjoyed haunts for a lot of his life. At one point when he was younger we were invited down to Richard Garriott’s home when he did haunts in his house. So we were able to through one of the haunts that Richard had done in his house, and it was mindblowing what he had built there. I think that, to a certain extent, that’s kind of informed the direction we’ve taken on this one.
Shawn Crosby for KR: Curtis, you’ve obviously been influenced much of your life by being raised in an environment of RPG because of your father’s career. How difficult is it to bring that from maybe a tabletop environment to a fully realized VR-enabled immersive environment to tell that kind of a story? Was it harder? More fun? Less fun?
Curtis Hickman: I’ll say it’s harder, because it takes so many people and so many great minds working together to make it happen, because it’s such a complex process. But the results ended up being stunning, so it was worth the effort. This was our first horror show, and we were nervous about doing it. How are people going to react to being scared in VR? Are they going to be scared at all? What’s that going to be like? So it was kind of an experiment for us, but one that worked out very well.
Tracy Hickman: And then, how far do you go? How far do you push it? Unlike a traditional haunt you have limitations, you can’t touch people, and there are physical limitations on what you can do. But in The Void all those limitations are out the window. You have haptic feedback, the floor rumbles, there are smells, you can feel impacts in the vest. How far do you take that before you’ve gone too far? It’s been a really interesting journey for us in experimenting in this particular genre.
Gene Turnbow for KR: Are you still struggling with the balance between the technology and the storytelling at this point?
Tracy Hickman: I don’t know if struggling is the word for it. We do find it challenging.
Gene Turnbow for KR: When you’re creating a story like this you’re trying to make it look like you’re not touching the boundaries, and there appears to be an art to it. How much work is this for you?
Curtis Hickman: The technology is still very early. In the very near future, a lot of those advancements are going to take care of some of the things we struggle with the most. In the meantime, illusion design fills in a lot of those gaps. We really get away with way more than I think we should be able to get away with with the technology we have available – but you’re right, there’s a delicate balance that’s happening on that stage, and a lot of psychology and magic design that goes into anticipating what people are going to do and how they’re going to perceive the world that’s happening around them.
Gene Turnbow for KR: Did you have trouble reining it in, to keep from trying to tell a story bigger than you could tell in VR?
Curtis Hickman: I don’t.
(laughter around the room)
Tracy Hickman: I write long ports, and I want to put far more in there than there’s time to do. But for me, one of the most interesting aspects of The Void is that we don’t tell stories. This is a completely new medium, and it’s in it’s infancy. Film has a whole language of its own that’s been developed over the last hundred years. The language of the virtual environment is still in its infancy, it’s only beginning to be understood. In The Void, we don’t tell a story, we provide a story environment in which you become the center of the story. Unlike any medium we’ve had throughout history, this is the first time we’ve been able to break the fourth wall completely and allow you to take center stage in what’s going on.
Gene Turnbow for KR: What new technology is coming down the pike in the immediate future that may affect what you’re doing with The Void?
Curtis Hickman: Eye tracking. There are so many great things that are going to come from eye tracking and HMD’s that will lead to amazing creative possibilities that we’re already exploring. The moment that technology is ready, we’re going to put it in place and use it.
Gene Turnbow for KR: What is the per-eye resolution of the HMD’s you’re using? A home VR system is about 1K, or 1080 x 1020 per eye.
Curtis Hickman: This is – I don’t even mind saying it – our head mounted display is an Occulus, which has been custom tailored and altered for The Void. The custom HMD with its Leap Motion tracker for tracking your hands, combined with The Void’s Raptureware technology exceeds what can be done in the home. I’m very confident of that.
Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment can currently be experienced at The Void in the Glendale Galleria in Glendale, California, and should be in franchise-wide distribution at all their locations at or near Halloween of 2018. For tickets and information, visit TheVoid.com.