Welcome to The Void

The most promising virtual reality experience I've ever had

Just a few minutes south of Salt Lake City, along the edge of Utah Lake, a massive industrial corridor wraps around Interstate 15. Locomotives cross the highway here so often and so slowly there's no flashing signal, just a man in a yellow vest who steps off the front of the engine to wave his arms.

Judging from the amount of heavy equipment on the horizon and the level of dust in the air, the most popular pastime appears to be breaking bigger rocks into smaller rocks and carrying them away.

Up the road a piece from Intermountain Turbine, just around the corner from Pacific Bridge & Steel, in the looming shadow of the Wasatch mountain range, is a slim commercial building.

And inside that building is a portal to an alternate dimension.

It's called The Void, and it's the most exciting virtual reality experience I've had yet.

The front door of The Void's traveling stage looks the same inside VR as it does outside.

Tripping the rift

The Void isn't like other VR systems you might have heard of. It is a full-body simulation, and it is completely wireless.

The Void's Rapture system features a haptic vest with a built-in, fully customized, ultralight computer.

So what does that mean?

What that means is you're not seated in The Void, like you are in most Oculus Rift experiences. You're not standing and walking around inside a tiny virtual cube, like you are with the HTC Vive. With The Void, you are completely free to go wherever you want within the bounds of the simulation.

Here's how it works.

When I first showed up at The Void, I was handed an unremarkable vest with a computer in it called a "backtop." Then a helmet was placed on top of my head. Once I positioned the sound-canceling headphones over my years, the helmet was connected to the backtop by two sturdy cables and its visor was lowered over my eyes.

Two things were immediately apparent to me, and both were unusual.

First, the wall in front of me — a blocky, pixelated surface that was as unremarkable as a sheet of sound-dampening foam — looked the exact same as it had before I lowered the visor. The Void was accurately projecting into my visor an image of that wall that looked just like the wall I had seen in real life.

The Void's head-mounted display doubles as a protective helmet.

It was so accurate, in fact, that I could feel the bumps in the wall in front of me with my hand and see that hand passing over them in a nearly perfect, one-to-one representation of the wall's actual texture.

But it wasn't actually my hand I was looking at. It was a virtual facsimile of my hand.

Not an approximation of a hand, but a representation of my actual hand. I could articulate each individual finger joint, and I could use those fingers to feel the irregular surface of the wall in front of me. And what I felt matched up with what I saw.

It was uncanny, and a little bit unsettling. But not nearly as unsettling as when the wall in front of me dissolved, revealing a dimly lit Mayan temple.

The experience was nothing less than magic. And, its creators tell me, that's because it is.


Illusion, Michael

Curtis Hickman is the chief creative officer at The Void. He is also a card-carrying member of the The Society of American Magicians. His stage name? The Amazing Curtis, of course.

"I was a professional magician for over a decade," Hickman said during a phone interview in March, a week before I traveled to his studio. "I designed things used by magicians all over the world, including guys like David Copperfield and Criss Angel. I performed in a lot of different venues and studied, quite extensively, both magic illusion and magic theory.

A full set of prototype Rapture gear. The short-barreled rifle is wireless, and also recognized as a moving object on the Void stage.

"I kind of gave up magic," he said, before stopping short. "Well, I won't say 'gave up.' I put it aside and made it more of a hobby after I got married and had kids, and picked up visual effects and started doing that more. That felt like magic that I could do just sitting around at home and not having to travel to do. I could sit in my office and create magic that people would watch on a big screen, which appealed to me."

Hickman is one of the co-founders of The Void, along with chief executive officer Ken Bretschneider and chief visionary officer James Jensen. But what Hickman brings to the project is a kind of showmanship that would otherwise be missing. And it all stems from his background in magic.

"One of the things that makes The Void so amazing," Hickman said, "is that we literally use illusion design, misdirection and magic theory to create the illusion of reality, as opposed to just trying to rely only on the technology to do it.

"There's age-old principles that have been studied — and which have evolved over years and years and years — that allow us to do amazing things as magicians and to apply those things to VR. I don't think that this is just neat or interesting, but extremely important. You put the visor down and the first thing you see is a digital representation of the physical world. It's what I call a 'path of conviction.'"


Bigger on the inside

The goal of The Void isn't just to tell your eyes that you're somewhere else, but to show your whole body. Thanks to Hickman's vision, stepping into that Mayan temple was a physical experience.

As I passed through the plane of that portal, the 22 different haptic modules in the vest I was wearing began to shake, first on the front of my body and then eventually on my back. It was as though I was physically pushing through an invisible barrier.

Walking onward, I went below the temple and emerged on a ledge beside a hidden grotto. Cool, wet air actually blew across my face and arms, thanks to strategically placed fans and water misters. Reaching down I could grasp the edge of that ledge and, leaning out over the expanse, look back at the rocky precipice I was standing on.

In reality, I was only a few inches above the ground.

It was at that point that a two-story-tall serpent rose out of the water to roar at me. I not only saw it in the visor, but I felt its hot breath on my face. Later I moved through a spider-infested tunnel and felt their cobwebs brushing against my arms. I swung my torch around, and they scurried back into their crevices.


After about 10 minutes I emerged from The Void with my heart racing, not quite believing all of what I'd just seen.

More troubling than the visual experience, though, was the fact that I felt like I'd walked hundreds of feet. But in reality, I was still standing outside a tiny Void stage that was roughly 30 feet on each side.

The real secret to The Void isn't the surreptitiously placed fans and heaters on the inside. It's not the airbags that drop you unexpectedly or the fishing line that brushes against your skin.

It's the fact that you can walk literally forever and never leave that 30-by-30 room.

And that's because Hickman has perfected the art of redirected walking.

"I can subconsciously move you the way I want you to move," Hickman said. "If I put a hallway in front of you, it would look like a straight hallway. And if I told you to walk down the hallway and you're in full Void gear — full VR — you would walk in what you believe to be a straight line.

"But in the real real world, you're actually turning by 90 degrees or more as you walk. You just subconsciously don't know it because I've made you believe that you're walking a straight line. ... We can reuse that space. And to you, in VR, it seems like it goes on forever and ever. But in the real world, we're able to confine that space to a manageable size."

An artist's rendering of a Void Entertainment Center.

Ticket to ride

The goal, Hickman told me, is to establish partnerships around the country and eventually the world to create destination VR experiences. Called Void Entertainment Centers (VECs), they would each have multiple 60-foot-square stages and offer various experiences. There would be one like mine, with Mayan ruins, but also a futuristic space shooter with aliens, as well as others.

"Imagine it's like a movie theater, and instead of going to the movie you'll live a movie," Hickman said. "You buy a ticket, you show up, you go to your stage, you put the gear on, and then you play in a new world for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, experiencing new realities.

"Instead of having people go and buy all the Oculus gear and the $2,000 computer and everything else ... they can just pay to rent our equipment for 20 or 30 minutes at a time for a much lower price. From $30 to $40, somewhere in there. To me that's the best way to introduce somebody to VR. Because I can give somebody the best VR experience in the world in The Void. Much better than hopping on a virtual roller coaster in their uncle's basement."

But The Void's technology isn't finished yet. First up is an improved helmet with a 180-degree field of view, which, Hickman said, is basically ready to roll off the line.

"I can give somebody the best VR experience in the world in The Void. Much better than hopping on a virtual roller coaster in their uncle's basement."

More complicated will be the radio frequency tracking system.

The major handicap for The Void right now is that it tracks players using an optical system, not much different than motion-tracking systems used in the games industry. Helmets and certain objects in The Void, like torches, are bedazzled with little reflective balls. Cameras mounted in the ceiling of a stage need a direct line of sight to those balls to properly track users.

That means that most of the walls inside The Void are only half-height, allowing an unobstructed view for the cameras. It also means that a Void stage needs to be painstakingly recalibrated every once in a while.

Additionally, the personal motion-sensing apparatus — the kit that allows players to see their own hands — is just a repurposed Leap Motion gesture-based input device strapped to the front of the visor. It can only sense the user's hands, and then only right in front of their face.

An RF system, Hickman said, would remove the need for the reflective balls. It would allow the team to build the walls higher, and it would also allow for more detailed avatars. With multiple RF nodes scattered over their body, players would be able to emote to each other. Of course, that would require more peripherals and perhaps even special gloves.

But even without those refinements, Hickman thinks The Void is ready for its public debut. Only then, Hickman said, will it begin to reveal its secrets.

Tracy and Curtis Hickman.

One last job

Curtis Hickman isn't merely a professional magician turned virtual reality entrepreneur. He's also the son of Tracy Hickman, the New York Times best-selling author and co-creator of the Dragonlance universe. Tracy Hickman is not just an author, he's also the game designer responsible for some of Dungeons & Dragons' most sophisticated stories, including the classic Ravenloft.

The original Larry Elmore painting of the Dragonlance characters now hangs inside the library at Curtis Hickman's home. Tracy Hickman calls it "the family portrait."

"I really see my life in two phases now," Tracy Hickman told me as we sat together in his office in Utah. "The life I had before was a good life, and, you know, it involved a certain amount of fame and notoriety, and that's nice. But working on The Void is a new chapter for me [and] everything that I have done professionally in my life up to this point has prepared me uniquely for this job, for this work."

Tracy Hickman has spent the better part of the last year working on the story bible for The Void: a story that will unfold for players who visit VECs, and will play out as a series of interactive adventures.

They're essentially virtual reality dungeon crawls, designed by one of the founding fathers of D&D.

"For me," Tracy Hickman said, "story is the center of the human condition. Our minds are hard-wired for story. ... Activity is busywork. Story is meaning, and that's one of the great strengths of The Void. The Void tells story."

"Everything that I have done professionally in my life ... has prepared me uniquely for this job."

The story of The Void will begin when players arrive at a VEC for the first time. The building itself is being designed to look as though it exists in multiple time periods simultaneously, with bits and pieces of different architectural styles blending into a single facade. Tracy Hickman describes The Void itself as an extradimensional portal, capable of moving people and objects through time and space. And each of the story beats in his bible are fuel for The Void's developers to create new and unique VR experiences.

But in the end, they will all be part of the same story. It's up to players to connect the dots.

"If you want to come to a Void center and go through the Mayan temple experience, that'll be great," Tracy Hickman said. "But there's so much detail that goes into these [experiences] and it is that level of depth and information that we're bringing into the discovered history of The Void. Where did it come from before we were here? Who's been through it before us? Are they still here? And what does it portend for us in the future? Are we messing with things we shouldn't be? All of these are questions that are part of this great backstory that's being woven, this great history that we're discovering together in The Void.

"There are whole areas that they will be able to access and discover and explore that they wouldn't be able to otherwise. Like I say, it's a lifetime of experience that I get to use here."

The same Void stage I experienced in Utah recently traveled to a TED conference in Vancouver. Tracy Hickman tells me that actor Harrison Ford was "blown away."

Hanging out the shingle

All the moving pieces seem to be in place. The Void stages, while fiddly and requiring regular maintenance, work as intended and at scale. The latest iterations of the backtop, helmet and laser rifle — which, along with the optical tracking system, comprise The Void's proprietary technology suite, Rapture — are entering final production. The first few experiences, like the Mayan Temple, are polished and ready to go.

The only thing missing is the customers.

Will they come? Will they come regularly? If they come too regularly, will the system be able to hold up without breaking down? And, if it all works better than expected, will there be enough content in The Void to keep people coming back for more?

Curtis Hickman and the other people working on The Void don't have answers to all of these questions, but they seem eager to find them. The day I visited, their offices were buzzing with activity, a beehive of nervous energy. There was a clutch of foreign businessmen chatting in one corner, developers racing between meetings while tossing catered food into their faces.

Poor Tracy Hickman and I had a hard time even finding a quiet corner to talk. Meanwhile, at least two working stages cycled through players and testers, one after the other.

So when will you be able to enter The Void yourself? The developers tell me it's possible they could open the first VEC as early as later this year.

Until then, The Amazing Curtis is still working hard at selling the magic of The Void to anyone who will listen.

"I love the idea of creating a fundamentally new way for people to be able to interact with each other," he said during my visit. "Ours is a very ambitious goal, and I feel that's what virtual reality has to offer in the best sense of the technology, and it's definitely something worth aspiring toward. So far all indications look like we are going to be able to accomplish it." Babykayak