Virtual Reality's Potential for Magic Gets Real

LINDON, Utah - In an ordinary office complex here, past stacked cartons of Mountain Dew and a throng of hoodie-wearing employees, sits a prototype for an attraction that Hollywood thinks will become the next entertainment craze - an offering that could mint money for its developers, throw a lifeline to struggling shopping malls and, at long last, jump-start sales of virtual reality gear."I have seen a lot of great V.R. experiences, and nothing comes close to what the Void is doing," said Cliff Plumer, a former Lucasfilm technologist and manager who joined the virtual reality start-up the Void as its chief executive on Feb. 9. "If anything is going to inspire mass consumer adoption of virtual reality, this is it."The Void's invention looks like nothing special. Four black wooden walls form a 30-foot square. The interior is divided into rudimentary, interconnected rooms. There is no ceiling, unless you count a latticework of cables and sensors.But everything changes when you put on a special virtual reality headset, pick up a rudimentary plastic gun, slip into a snug vest and strap on small backpack, which has a lightweight computer inside: You and your friends instantly become Ghostbusters.The first room is now a furniture-filled New York apartment crowded with pink poltergeists. That plastic weapon is now a functioning proton gun, just like in the films, and you can use it to zap apparitions (and anything else in view).As the 10-minute adventure continues, your group tracks ghosts through the apartment tower - in a fast-moving elevator, outside on a rickety window-washing platform - as some ghouls float through you, arriving with a whoosh of air in your face and a vibration of that vest.A demonic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man arrives at the climax. Do your job correctly and the scent of toasted white fluff fills the air.Would people, especially young people, pay $20 a head to experience this kind of "hyper-reality"? The Void, which has refined the concept of mapping a virtual world over a physical set, believes they will - in fact, a first location near Times Square is already making money. Featuring the same "Ghostbusters" story line, the attraction opened in July at Madame Tussauds New York and has since sold more than 43,000 tickets, translating to nearly $900,000 in revenue.The Void intends to open 20 additional hyper-reality attractions this year; some Void Experience Centers will have more than one "stage," as it refers to the sets, and there will be non-Ghostbusting story lines: roaming a jungle filled with dinosaurs, perhaps, or searching for treasure in an Egyptian pyramid.So far, the Void has been funded by one of its three founders, Ken Bretschneider, who has invested millions. (He previously started an internet security firm called DigiCert, which he sold in 2012.) The Void is now working with the Raine Group, a merchant bank known for its investment in Vice and ties to the William Morris Endeavor talent agency, to raise expansion funding. Circling, at the same time, have been mall owners, multiplex chains and theme park operators."All of a sudden, we have some of the most influential people on the planet asking for tours," said James Jensen, another Void founder. (The third founder is the chief creative officer, Curtis Hickman, whose background is in visual effects and Las Vegas illusionist shows; he's a member of the Society of American Magicians.)Stephen B. Burke, chief executive of NBCUniversal, has been through a Void prototype. So has Robert A. Iger, chief executive of the Walt Disney Company. Last year, Disney even had a Void rig brought to a board meeting so its board of directors could go for a test spin.Various Hollywood filmmakers have tried it themselves, including Steven Spielberg. "It's very repeatable, just like a film, and it's an extraordinarily visceral and effective way to tell a story," said Ivan Reitman, who directed the original "Ghostbusters" and its sequel, "Ghostbusters II."The Void's potential may have as much to do with the solutions it offers to other businesses as it does with entertainment.Take at-home virtual reality gear. Sales have been lethargic, held back by high costs ($400 to $800, just for the headsets) and a shortage of must-have content. Virtual reality also has a bad reputation for making users feel woozy. And the V.R. experiences offered so far can be unpleasantly isolating; you are alone in those goggles.But the Void could be the equivalent of a gateway drug.There is no investment necessary; just show up and buy a ticket. It's social; groups of up to four can participate at once and see avatars of one another in the V.R. realm. And roaming through a large set - it's all wireless, so participants are not tethered to a cord, as with most other V.R. experiences - seems to solve the nausea problem."It's not a subtle difference," said Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist and neuroscience professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who recently joined the Void's advisory board.The Void also sees itself as a new draw for dying malls, where anchor stores have been closing. Multiplexes, many of which are overbuilt, could convert auditoriums into stages. Film companies, eager for new ways to market movies and keep franchises alive between chapters, could turn to the Void as well."We're a big solution to a lot of big puzzles," Mr. Bretschneider said.Bravado aside, the Void faces plenty of challenges. One involves scale: How do you move enough people through the stages? The "Ghostbusters" experience in New York can accommodate only about 450 customers a day; it takes about 15 minutes for participants to move through, including getting in and out of the gear. There is also the question of long-term sustainability: Even if the Void does take off, what makes it more than a fad - the laser tag, motion-simulator ride or ShowBiz Pizza arcade of its day?And competition is mounting. Last week, Imax said it planned to open six V.R. centers this year, some in partnership with AMC Theaters and Regal Entertainment, at a cost of up to $400,000 each, not including real estate. One opened in January in Los Angeles. Tickets start at $7."Virtual reality is a complex ecosystem that's in need of a jump-start, and we're here to provide the spark," said Rich Gelfond, Imax's chief executive.Also announced last week was Dreamscape Immersive, which hopes to open its first center dedicated to virtual reality experiences in the fall. It has cobbled together $11 million in funding from companies like 21st Century Fox, Westfield Corporation and Warner Bros. Mr. Spielberg is also involved."We've assembled a team with years of proven success in the creation and distribution of global entertainment," said Walter F. Parkes, an Oscar-nominated producer who is a Dreamscape founder.Still, Void leaders contend that their head start, proprietary technology and much more elaborate approach make competition an afterthought."We've gained a lot of knowledge and data over the past three years that has put us miles ahead of everybody," Mr. Jensen said. "We know what story moments stop people from engaging with the content, what's not scary enough, what's too scary."Mr. Jensen, who has a background in visual effects and video games, met his fellow Void founders in late 2013. Mr. Bretschneider and Mr. Hickman had been working on a dream project called Evermore, a physical theme park they hoped to build in suburban Salt Lake City. Mr. Jensen was hired to help with a 3-D component. When the expansive Evermore proved too ambitious, they began exploring virtual reality.The Void, shorthand for Vision of Infinite Dimensions, now has 75 employees. "It makes sense that we grew out of a theme-park idea," Mr. Hickman said, "The Void is kind of like an old-fashioned, walk-through attraction - a haunted house - overlaid with this amazing technology that allows us to create any world we want."He added: "It seems simple, but it's actually very complex. There is physical misdirection and psychological misdirection. Magic, basically."

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