Magazine article Variety

VR Invaders

Magazine article Variety

VR Invaders

Article excerpt

The spiders are everywhere. Hundreds of them are crawling all over barely lit brick walls and ceilings. Soon, you start to feel them on your neck and arms. You try to shake them off, hurry around the corners of the dark catacomb - only to find yourself eye to eye with a giant sea serpent lunging out of the water, ready to attack.

Your heart starts racing, and for a second, you forget that none of this is real. The dragon, the spiders and the mysterious catacomb and its ghostly inhabitants are all part of an elaborate virtual reality experience called "Curse of the Serpent's Eye."

Built by VR start-up The Void, "Curse" is premiering next month at the company's headquarters in Lindon, Utah, where visitors are being asked to put on helmet-like VR headsets, special haptic feedback vests and computers integrated into backpacks.

Without any cables tying them down, users are free to explore a set that measures close to 700 square feet and combines a virtual world with real walls, doors, tangible props and good old imagineering tricks, like fans blowing hot air whenever the display in your headset shows fire. And you can do all of this with up to three friends, so you won't be the only one screaming when you feel those spiders.

"You just do what you normally do," explains The Void co-founder and chief visionary officer James Jensen, whose previous career stints include mobile game design and tech work for the Mormon Church. "Walk around, explore the world, use your real hands, grab items, touch stuff," he advises.

The Void was originally supposed to become a massive 21st-century amusement park in Utah. Then VR happened, and the founding team realized that you didn't need a couple square miles of land to build intricate worlds anymore. The company debuted its first commercial VR experience at Madame Tussauds in New York's Times Square a year ago and has since launched locations in Toronto and Dubai, where "The Serpent's Eye" will be shown as well.

The company has struck partnerships with shopping malls, theme parks and movie theaters to open dozens of additional locations in Los Angeles, New York, Florida and abroad in the coming months. Eventually, it wants to run experiences on thousands of stages around the world.

In many cases, these will fill a void leftby declining movie ticket sales and a crisis in retail, maintains The Void CEO CliffPlumer: "Whether it's a theme park or shopping mall or movie theater, they are losing audience. They are looking for the new attraction." And Plumer, like others, is betting that VR can be that fresh lure - plus a big cash cow for Hollywood.

The Void's first commercial experience was a VR adaptation of "Ghostbusters," which the company produced in partnership with Sony Pictures. Behind the scenes, the company is already working on other titles based on big movie franchises. "The studios are looking for new revenue streams," Plumer says. "We have one, and it's one that's easy for them to relate to."

Studio execs are clearly on board with the format. "We believe that location-based VR will be the way that many people experience virtual reality for the first time," says Salil Mehta, president of 20th Century Fox's innovation unit, FoxNext. "It's an incredible opportunity for us to create industry-defining immersive experiences that can't be replicated in your living room."

FoxNext is developing a location-based "Alien" VR experience; Fox has also invested in Dreamscape Immersive, one of The Void's competitors.

Paramount unveiled a location-based VR experience for Michael Bay's "Transformers: The Last Knight" at select theaters in June. And Disney decided to come along for the ride with The Void, adding the company to its most recent batch of Disney Accelerator start-ups.

"We've heard over and over from film studios that location-based is becoming part of their strategy moving forward," says Doug Griffin, chief executive for Nomadic, a Bay Area-based location-based VR start-up. …

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