Virtual reality theme park at TED

Scene from The VoidImage copyright
The Void

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Players have to solve puzzles to open doors

A virtual reality theme-park offering a digital alternative to cinemas, bowling alleys and shopping centres is on show at the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference.

VR firms such as Oculus and Samsung have concentrated on developing headsets for use at home.

But the Void will open its first entertainment centre in Utah in the autumn.

One expert said the idea of a physical VR park seemed “pretty compelling”.

The Void’s founder Curtis Hickman wants to open virtual reality parks in “cities all around the world”.

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The Void

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The virtual set is like something from an Indiana Jones movie

“The Void is about creating the most immersive technology, so instead of sitting at your desk, you walk around an environment. It is a tangible world that seems like it never ends,” he told the BBC.

“People like to feel that they are somewhere else, and feel the mist in a cave or the heat from a fire – or believe that they are going up in an elevator.”

That experience is creating using haptic vests and a backpack alongside the more familiar VR headset.

The version at TED was a bespoke creation that challenged players to solve puzzles as they walked around an ancient tomb.

Entering the Void…

I have tried a few VR headsets in my time but generally I am very aware that, despite the amazing visions I can see through the goggles, I am basically standing in a room moving my head around in an odd fashion.

Entering the Void was a very different experience and felt like I had finally fulfilled my childhood dream of stepping inside the TV.

There are walls to touch and a stone throne that you are invited to sit on. It all takes place in a small room but the space feels much larger, with corridors that lead to jungles and pools full of sea monsters. You have to pick up virtual torches and when walls crumble you believe that the bricks are falling on you.

Despite believing entirely in the world I entered – and feeling like Indiana Jones – I didn’t scream when I met a monster or fall down a pit having failed to solve the problem correctly.

This was partly because I experienced the Void with a partner, who I rather feebly suggested went first around every corner..

But it was also because I remained aware at all times that this wasn’t “real”.

Had I remained there longer than the 10 minutes it took to complete – and I could happily have stayed inside for hours – I may have started to believe more deeply in my strange new reality.

Coming back to a somewhat grey Vancouver was a bit disappointing and made me wonder about how we are going to cope with reality when such exciting worlds are just a headset away.

‘Rough around the edges’

The entertainment centres being planned by the Void will offer a range of content and will be family friendly.

Ina Fried, a journalist for technology website Recode, enjoyed her test run.

“It was a little rough around the edges but still fun and very immersive,” she told the BBC.

“It does allow people to get their first taste of VR without having to plunk down cash to buy new gadgets.”

Chris Savage, chief executive of video hosting platform Wistia said: “I’ve not experienced it myself but it sounds like laser tag taken to the millionth degree.”

“The challenge will be to build different physical spaces to experience it in,” he added.

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The Void

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No pictures of people in the gear or the attraction were allowed so here’s one of the entrance

As virtual reality becomes ubiquitous, he thinks the Void raises questions about how people will react to an alternative reality.

“Is it too real for some people? Do you forget you are a person if your avatar is too real?”

Curtis Hickman joked that, while there was a place for the real world, he preferred the Void.

“I know when I get out I want to go straight back in – it’s an adventure that is difficult to have any other way,” he said.

He added, on a more serious note, that he hoped the virtual world “would translate into the real world and help people to live their lives even better”.

The booth was attracting huge queues at the TED conference but was also experiencing some technical faults, forcing it to close several times during the week.

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