I'm standing in a room full of shattered furniture, a hole ripped out of the wall, New York's skyline glowing in the distance. And yeah, I'm zapping the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man with my proton pack. A smell of marshmallow sweetness is puffing around, being injected from somewhere. Also, there's a bit of a breeze. I'm trying not to bump into my ghost-busting buddies standing next to me.
Let me back up a bit: this is in VR. But, yes, I'm really in New York. Madame Tussauds is launching a new Ghostbusters-themed exhibit this week to kick off the new movie opening up in in mid-July. The "Ghostbusters Experience" is a set of walk-through rooms with wax models. There are several clever spaces to explore, including a subway station and a haunted hallway, and yes, all the new women Ghostbusters are cast in wax for you to pose with.
But at the end of this experience is a separate attraction called Ghostbusters: Dimension, a collaboration between The Void, Sony Pictures and the new movie's producer Ivan Reitman and director Paul Feig. It's the first public VR theme-park-style experience made by The Void, a company in Utah building ways to mix multiperson VR gameplay with real holodeck-like physical spaces. The company calls its tech "hyper-reality." I never tried The Void's technology in the few limited opportunities when it's been demoed at events this past year, but I've used most other virtual-reality and augmented-reality hardware.
And after 10 minutes in it, I'm pretty convinced it's the best model for VR entertainment over the next few years.
Bustin' some virtual ghosts via The Void
The entrance to The Void Ghostbusters: Dimension experience feels like a theme park dropped down in the middle of Madame Tussauds, down to a line and videos with guidance on how to behave in the ride and what to do if you experience nausea or confusion (answer: raise your hand, wait for someone to help). I waited for my group of three to be ushered into a room where racks of gear hung on hooks for us to put on. The Void's hardware is a large VR helmet with headphones, plus an across-the-chest vest with vibrational haptics that's attached to a slightly heavy backpack. It looks a bit like Ghostbusters gear, or a '90s cybermilitary suit from a wannabe James Cameron movie.
There are no hand controllers, just a connected rifle blaster. When I put the headset on over my glasses, I can see where the Proton Pack shooter is aimed. I can also see the two people next to me, who look like they're wearing Ghostbusters gear too. We stand around like in-game NPCs waiting for a level to load.
The experience takes about 10 minutes or so. We're told over our headsets to go and open a door in front of us. It's a videogame-like door, but I reach out and feel a real door with my hand. The Void maps all its rooms to what the VR experience shows, so walls are really walls, doors doors, railings railings. There's a part where I step over a rickety-looking footbridge and the floor feels differently beneath me. It really rumbles under my shoes. I grab for the railing, and reality feels a bit slippery.
If you've used an HTC Vive before and seen what its full-room holodeck-like virtual reality can do, that's a little similar to what you get in The Void's experience rooms...except there are no limits to how big the space can be. I walked through about four or five rooms, moving everywhere I wanted. The backpack computers that powered the hardware I wore have 40 minutes of battery life, more than enough to last through my experience. It's basically wireless.
Graphically, it felt a little bit like a step down from the best VR I've seen. But it's good enough to look fun, and even be a little scary once in a while. It felt like a giant video game I could walk through. I don't want to spoil the surprises. I rode an elevator, zapped weird ghosts, got "hit" by flying things that made my chest rumble. Sometimes the headset felt a bit tight over my glasses. But the illusion held. Ten minutes felt about right...I wouldn't want to stay in much longer. But I didn't get nauseous. I did wonder why it seemed OK to cross the streams during our ghostbusting free-form running around, and I engaged in a lot of friendly fire that didn't seem to cause any harm.
A model for VR theme parks to come
According to Chief Visionary Officer and founder James Jensen and CEO Ken Bretschneider, The Void's open-concept design is made to fit into various spaces and with various experiences. Plans are being made to turn The Void into "experience centers" across the world, and even possibly dovetail them with home VR content. It's like a theme park, by design. It also feels similar to a high-tech haunted house, or theater, or even one of those old-school Lazer Tag arenas, if you were to be completely enclosed in VR. Its social element -- that you're in there with others -- already makes it feel different than any virtual-reality gear you can buy to take home. And VR hardware is expensive...and embryonic. Why spent $1,000+ on a PC-connected VR holodeck for your living room, when you can rent an experience with friends?
Says Jensen of the experience, "It can be its own place, in a sense, but it can be in existing spaces, we can retrofit...like a high-end mall. You see so many key tenants moving out of mall projects, and they need an anchor, they need experience. That's what's going to keep those places alive."
I'm old enough to remember when VR systems were installed in malls back in the early '90s. The Void feels like a return to those days...but in a far more advanced form.
In that sense, The Void's Ghostbusters: Dimension attraction is the first of what could be many more events like it. Call it the new "4D theater," or Imax, or arcade, but it's also probably a pretty smart idea. And, for now, it's certainly novel enough to try once if you're in midtown Manhattan with time and money to spend.