Moments after slipping on a backpack stuffed with the innards of a gaming computer, and a helmet with a virtual reality display set inside, I completely forget about the technology driving what I see and feel.
Two friends and I are in an elevator and, in the virtual world, are wearing Star Wars stormtrooper suits. We have a request from a droid on a platform above us to pull on a handle that will start the elevator moving. I reach out and see my virtual hand grab a metal bar, as my real-world hand feels and grasps a metal bar along the wall. Pulling it down with a clunk, the platform starts to move.
This is when I realize the VR experience I am in now is vastly different than anything I have done before—even though, as a technology analyst, I’ve spent plenty of time with VR gear dating back to the first Oculus Rift prototype. During the 30 minutes I spend with Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, the potential of virtual and augmented reality is solidified in my mind. Built by a company called The Void and part of the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, this is the future of theme parks and location-based entertainment.
The Void builds and operates VR experiences at various locales across the globe, including the one I bought a ticket for at the Disney Springs shopping area outside the Walt Disney World theme park. It currently operates two shows, the Star Wars-themed one I played through (live at four locations) and another based on Ghostbusters (live at five locations). More locations and attractions —including one with a horror theme—are on the way.
Playing through a scenario at The Void is quite different than any other VR experience you will likely have encountered. Rather than standing in place or even inside a single room and being tracked via your headset and VR-specific gaming controllers, The Void uses a more complex system that gives you more freedom. When you put on the helmet and pull down the visor with screens in place, you can see and control individual fingers, giving a “thumbs up” to your partners without the need for simulating it through a controller. The helmet integrates headphones and mic for player-to-player communication.
Inside the complex, you move between rooms via hallways. Though painted a dark gray in the real world, in the virtual one behind your helmet you see the inside of a maintenance shaft or balcony overlooking a volcanic lava field. Want to reach out and touch the walls or grab the rail in front you? You can do that, because it’s physically there.
You don’t start with a blaster rifle, but about halfway through your mission, you find a gun rack full of them. You only need to reach out and grab one; you are now holding a physical, weighted Star Wars weapon, and your character is holding one in the virtual space.
As you move from room to room, The Void uses physical effects to improve immersion. When your hovercraft flies by the volcanic runoff, a wave of hot air rises from beneath you, tinging your nostrils and causing a bit of perspiration on your hands. Your shoes sink a bit into a pillow-like surface when walking over a portion of path that is melted (in the virtual world) because of that heat.
When I stepped out of the 20 minutes or so of VR action, I couldn’t help but smile. It felt like the future of entertainment, and it worked amazingly well. It wasn’t perfect (sometimes my hand might pass through a virtual wall or surface when it shouldn’t have, for example) but the fun and exhilaration that I felt overshadowed any negatives. Also important for VR: I felt no instances of queasiness or discomfort.
After my session, I stuck around the lobby to talk with the next five groups that exited. Not one person exited without an ear-to-ear smile; most said it was by far the coolest thing they had done during their vacation. Even when I asked about the price—a 20-minute run through the attraction will cost you over $35—not one person said they thought that was too much, and many said the company was undercharging. You don’t hear that often when visiting theme parks in 2018.
The secret’s in the tech
The Void keeps much of the technology that powers its Star Wars and Ghostbusters experiences close to the vest. Staff on site weren’t willing to talk about the cameras, tracking, or hardware, though there are Oculus logos scattered in the building, indicating that Facebook’s VR arm is involved in the effort. Launch information from The Void in 2016 tells us that the “backtop” computer powering the in-visor display is using off-the-shelf PC hardware like a GeForce GTX 980 graphics card from Nvidia. (It’s possible the underlying graphics architecture has been upgraded in that 18- to 24-month window.)
One staffer told me that other than the virtual reality headset itself, all the other technologies, rendering capability, and person tracking were “built in-house.” There are dozens of cameras positioned above the rooms in the facility, all tracking infrared indicators on the players’ helmets and shoulders, giving the system the ability to interpret relative location (to within a millimeter, I’m told) and storyline progression. On-helmet cameras track hand and finger movement, using technology developed by Leap Motion.
The Void is an independent company, and one onsite employee I spoke with expressed concern over the creative freedom that might be lost if that status were to change. Both Ghostbusters and Star Wars are licensed properties that Sony and Disney allowed to be built into these VR experiences as tests and trials for more to come. (The Void collaborated with Disney’s ILMxLab on the Star Wars attraction.)
Now that this experiment has paid off to such impressive effect, there is little doubt in my mind that Disney should and will buy The Void, which was a 2017 participant in the Disney Accelerator, a program that includes resources, mentorship, and a financial investment. With the array of opportunity provided by various Disney-owned properties—from princesses to superheroes—there is no shortage of potential content for The Void to mine, at Disney’s theme parks and beyond.
What The Void has built today is the cutting edge of VR, but there are fundamental traits that can and will change the tide for theme parts and on-location entertainment in both the near future and long term. It is important to remember that the modern age of VR only began in early 2016 with the launch of the Oculus Rift. And what The Void is showing today opened in late 2016, with minimal changes taking place between then and now. The upward march of processing capability and VR/AR technology provides a road map of advancements that every smart entertainment company is already tracking.
The value of a company like The Void for Disney isn’t simply to duplicate the existing Star Wars and Ghostbusters experiences for other franchises, but instead to provide the infrastructure for more dramatic changes coming to theme parks. Should Disney take the plunge and invest fully, there are two scenarios I see playing out.
The future of theme parks
In the next one to three years, additional development should provide the ability to expand the physical size and scope of these gaming scenarios from their current eight- to 10-room scale to something larger, more in the one- to three-acre range. (In a statement, Curtis Hickman, chief creative officer and cofounder of The Void, said in theory the current system could be expanded to a stage “many, many times bigger” than what currently exists.) Expanding the concurrent player count from four to dozens will create more opportunities for competitive and cooperative play styles. Players will still need to shoulder the weight of a backpack-based PC to power the visuals; thus, time-limited scenarios will still be a requirement.
Imagine participating in Marvel’s Infinity Wars with a group of 20-30 players, as the superheroes fly overhead. Or in Star Wars, scaling the snow banks on Hoth as the ground assault from the Empire creeps closer to the Rebel base. These possibilities are only a modest step forward from where we are today.
The more substantial future that is 10 years out is still based on VR and AR capability, but moves the scale from acres to entire parks. Imagine the Magic Kingdom being modified in augmented reality in real-time, unique for each visitor. As you walk down Main Street, your kids can see Mickey in a second-story window waving to them. As you walk in front of the castle, there’s a princess ball taking place with all the movie favorites. Outside your resort hotel, you can watch a pirate battle between opposing factions take place on Bay Lake.
This opportunity will require a significant jump forward in technological development. Instead of bulky helmets, we’ll be wearing standard frame glasses that look similar to the sunglasses or prescription lenses you wear today, with embedded screens for overlaying digital content. Rather than being forced to wear a bulky backpack with PC hardware, new wireless technologies including 5G and millimeter-wave will allow for low latency transmission of content to those glasses from stations and computing environments scattered around the grounds of the park.
Along the way, the companies involved in creating technology for these experiences will need to reduce weight, extend battery life, and manage costs. This is a substantial leap over the current generation of technology on the market, but it’s a question of when, not if. The results could roll out as a premium feature for those park attendees willing to upgrade at first, scaling to mass audiences as costs and complexities come down.
For Disney, The Void can help jump-start this inevitable future of park-going experiences. Taking the next step to buy the technology is an easy decision. Moving it from shopping centers directly into the theme parks, with additional franchises and scenarios, will give more consumers the chance to try it, helping the company to perfect it.
Anyone who runs through Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire at The Void (or the Ghostbusters alternative) will clearly see the future of amusement and theme parks in front of them. The first company to understand and implement this widely will have a significant edge in next the 20 years of park development. Disney has its foot in the door with its current partnership, but Universal, its theme-park arch rival, will be right behind. I can’t wait to see how this technology evolves, and how future trips with my family will amaze.
Ryan Shrout is the founder and lead analyst at Shrout Research, consulting and advising leaders in mobile, graphics, processors, and platforms. He has more than 18 years of experience evaluating and analyzing hardware and technology, including CPUs, graphics, memory systems, storage, displays, and their integration into consumer devices. Shrout has worked with nearly every major technology giant, and their product-management teams include Intel, Qualcomm, AMD, Nvidia, Samsung, Asus, Oculus, and Microsoft.