Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

“Who Ya Gonna Call?” My evening as a Ghostbuster at The Void.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 8, 2017

Friday night, my wife and I went to The Void here in Utah to try out the VR Ghostbusters experience. The Void has locations currently open in New York and Dubai, but they’ve finally opened it up at a temporary facility here in Utah while their new center is under construction.

I’ve posted about it before… The Void is a mixed-reality (they brand it “Hyper-Reality”) experience where you gear up with custom VR equipment and make your way through a map… a maze of simple real-life props with a VR overlay on top of it. If you know the Dream Park series by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, or the Holodeck from Star Trek, this is as close as we can get given current technology.

It’s been a year and a half since that demo, and now the hardware is… well, “final” may not be exactly the right term, because I expect they’ll keep updating the hardware as long as they want to stay in business. The location has changed, the hardware has changed… and I’ve become more jaded. I work with mixed reality as part (sadly, too small of a part) of my day job now. I still think VR is one of the coolest technologies of my lifetime, and I love being at the point where it’s finally becoming commercially viable. (Of course, part of me says, “It took long enough! Sheesh!”). But simply being “in” VR is less of a novelty to me now.

The lobby area reminded both of us of the old “Virtual World Entertainment” centers we visited back in the 1990s… AKA the “Battletech Centers.” The facility here was still a bit more stripped down and sedate by comparison… and maybe that’s not entirely what they are going for… but we were both struck with the similarities. Of course, part of what happened to the Battletech Centers was simply that technology for home systems outpaced what they could keep up with. There’s a lesson to be learned for The Void.

The advantage of The Void is that what they provide must be location-based, unlike some of the VR arcades popping up in a few places. Which is why I think of it more like “Dream Park” than the Holodeck.  There’s something called “the virtuality spectrum,” with unadulterated real life on one end, and a completely virtual, illusion-based experience on the other. Obviously, we exist on one end of the spectrum, so that’s easy. We’re finally solving the other side of the spectrum, creating an immersive illusion around us. But the stuff in the middle of that spectrum… augmented reality and augmented virtual reality… AKA “Mixed Reality” – it turns out that this can be really, really hard.

That’s what The Void is all about. Their adventure lay somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. There are props you can handle, sets you can traverse, and lots of real-world special effects to make the virtual reality experience as immersive as possible. You carry your computer on your back, so you aren’t tethered. The system will track you anywhere within their maze of walls and doors. The backpack makes a lot of sense for Ghostbusters, actually, and adds rather than subtracts from the experience, as you are supposed to be carrying a proton pack on your back. The vest and the weapon / toll are haptic feedback devices, so you get some nice feelings of impact to match what’s happening in the simulation.

The trick is, of course, knowing what is solid and what is phantom. This means testing things with your hand or with your proton-pack discharge nozzle (the gun) before you, say, sit down in a chair. But very simple props can turn into elaborate and fantastic elements with the VR overlay.  They don’t rely exclusively on this, though. The Void tries to be a tactile experience as well. The walls may have different textures depending on the style. There are real buttons on an elevator that you can press. Not that I could tell if they did anything, but at least it wasn’t a flat panel. They add some small amounts of motion to give you the feeling of being in an elevator or on scaffolding, blow air on you when you are out in the open, and even add smells to enhance the experience. And when you get slimed… well, you will know it.

All this stuff going on increases risk to yourself and to the equipment, because it is inherently multiplayer. For this, The Void has a guide go with you. She helped us get out equipment set up, but was otherwise silent through the whole experience. I didn’t even know she was with us, but she stop my wife from running into me at one point.

Which points out a limitation (one I fight here at the day job, too) – calibration between the real world and the virtual one. That’s one of those hard things I mentioned. Something as simple as tightening the fit of the head-mounted display will subtly change your field of view. So even if things were perfectly calibrated a moment ago, one adjustment and things will be “off” by a tiny distance.  So you are still spending a bit of time feeling about half-blindly to touch the wall. Things are a bit better with the gun, as it has its own trackers and maps into the VR world better.

The “Ghostbusters” experience has you playing a junior team from the company featured in the Ghostbusters movies.  You’re busting ghosts. And causing plenty of damage in the process. The experience is a new story, borrowing elements from both the original film and the new reboot. From the “proton packs” you carry on your backs, to the fact that the ghosts are supposed to be insubstantial and are only “felt” through the haptic feedback when they pass through you, this is perhaps the perfect license for The Void’s technology.

The adventure takes place inside a run-down apartment building.  The graphics are a little bit more stylized than what we experienced last time… which isn’t a bad thing. While it still errs on the side of realism, the more “cinematic reality” makes it easier to forgive the inevitable distortions that appear. Like when the tracker tries to interpret your companion’s pose in something not quite humanly possible. Or when things in the virtual world get really, explosively wild in the virtual world. Naturally, that happens a lot, as it should.

I wish I could tell you about the differences in the display between The Void and the HTC Vive, but honestly, I wasn’t paying that much attention. I was too busy having fun. Which probably tells you all you need to know right there.

Bottom line… it’s the best VR experience out there. Maybe that’s not as big a gulf as it was a couple of years ago, but its definitely worth experiencing it for yourself if you find yourself near one of The Void’s centers. If you are a seasoned VR vet, it’s really cool. If you are fairly new to VR, it’s pretty much mind-blowing (but it may spoil you for other, simpler VR experiences…)

This is the Dream Park I envisioned when I first read Niven and Barnes’ book as a teenager… at least the little mini-adventures in the park that they talked about. While there is room for plenty of refinement, the technology is clearly here, now. I love it that I’m getting jaded enough that I can talk about it analytically without frothing at the mouth about how WE ARE LIVING IN THE FUTURE, PEOPLE!

If you are in Utah, you may want to act fast… I’m not sure how long this center will be open, or how big of a gap there’ll be between closing this one and opening the new one.


Filed Under: Virtual Reality - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • Darius said,

    I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed by The Void. We went a little over a week ago and had a fair number of technical issues. The tracking on the guns was bad, they had to restart us twice and the framerate kept dipping. The bits that worked were pretty impressive though.

    I went with my wife, my dad and one of his coworkers. My dad and his friend were both very impressed, so it might just be that my wife and I were a bit jaded from playing around with our HTC Vive.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, I was definitely more jaded this time around than the last time. 🙂 But they’d just reset the system before we went, so we didn’t run into any technical problems aside from the occasional minor tracking error. And of course, calibration not being perfect with the real world… but I would have been really shocked if it was!

    I still get a kick out of watching people try VR for the first time. That initial experience (or two or three) is pretty amazing. For me, now, this seemed more of an incremental improvement. But having worked with mixed reality, I’m impressed with the things they get right… multiple people in the same virtual and real space, mapping the walls and furniture and props into that space. That was more impressive to me than the haptic feedback or the special effects.

    While it could definitely use improvement / advancement (I can’t wait!), for me it felt like Dream Park Phase 1. The tech pieces are there. They definitely need to keep pushing to stay ahead of the home consumer market, but by concentrating on physical space and special effects, they’ve got something that cannot be effectively replicated at home.