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The Void’s Curtis Hickman on scaling, creative IP and the future of VR experiences

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The Void Curtis Hickman

What can you do with virtual reality when you have complete control of the physical space around the player? How “real” can virtual reality become?

That’s the core concept behind The Void. They take over retail spaces in places like Downtown Disney and shopping malls around the country and turn them into virtual reality playgrounds, They’ve got VR experiences based on properties like Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and Wreck-It Ralph; while these big names tend to be the main attractions, they’re dabbling with creating their own original properties, too.

By building both the game environment and the real-world rooms in which players wander, The Void can make the physical and virtual align. If you see a bench in your VR headset, there’s a bench there in the real world for you to sit on; if you see a lever on the wall in front of you, you can reach out and physically pull it. Land on a lava planet and heat lamps warm your skin; screw up a puzzle, and you’ll feel a puff of mist letting you know to try something else.

At $30-$35 per person for what works out to be a roughly thirty-minute experience (about ten of which is watching a scene-setting video and getting your group into VR suits), it’s pretty pricey. But it’s also some of the most mind-bending VR I’ve ever seen.

The Void reportedly raised about $20 million earlier this year and is in the middle of a massive expansion. It’s more than doubling its number of locations, opening 25 new spots in a partnership with the Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield chain of malls.

I sat down to chat with The Void’s co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Curtis Hickman, to hear how they got started, how his background (in stage magic!) comes into play here, how they came to work with massive properties like Ghostbusters and Star Wars, and where he thinks VR is going from here.

Greg Kumparak: Tell me a bit about yourself. How’d you get your start? How’d you get into making VR experiences?

Curtis Hickman: My background is in magic. I’ve been doing magic since I was in kindergarten.

I eventually got really into magic theory and magic design. I’ve designed things that some bigger names in magic have used. I got really into that magic community and doing shows. But I got tired of doing shows, and tired of traveling around after I had a family.

So I transitioned into my hobby, which was visual FX. I did visual FX full time for a while.

The Void, I think, is the culmination of these two careers coming together; this digital magic, and this practical magic making something new.

Kumparak: How does magic and magic design transition into something like this?

Hickman: Virtual reality is just an illusion. We’re trying to create the illusion of a different reality — in my mind, that’s something that magicians do every day.

The reality that they’re presenting is one in which a coin can disappear, or an elephant can float… whatever the trick is, they’re trying to present a reality where these things can happen. To create these compelling illusions of impossible things taking place.

I see that as the same thing we’re doing here. You’re stepping into Star Wars. Nothing about that is real! But we’re trying to create the illusion that this impossible place you’re standing in is, in fact, as real as we can make it.

Kumparak: You currently have around 16+ locations, and you’re in the middle of an expansion. Any lessons learned from expanding?

Hickman: Oh gosh, yeah.

We’ve changed a lot about how our operations work, we’ve changed our look even, to an extent. We used to be much darker. The Void is something that’s supposed to be accessible to everyone, so we’ve needed to shift our tones and the way we present ourself.

Kumparak: I noticed that this location [its newest store, in San Francisco] is considerably lighter and brighter, then, say, the location in Anaheim. Did the darker look creep people out, or keep people from coming in?

Hickman: In the end, there’s a bit of a metaphor we’re trying to present here; that The Void is a canvas for different realities. It goes back to this whole thing of stepping into different realities. That reality can be anything. As opposed to The Void being this literal translation of stepping into the dark, to me it’s kind of the opposite — go into The Void, and you’re stepping into the light.

The Void SF Westfield

Kumparak: How do you determine where you open a new location?

Hickman: There’s a ton of work that goes into that. On the business side, we look at traffic flows and patterns, what else is in the area. Are there supporting businesses and restaurants? Are there entertainment options there, where someone can make an evening, or a day trip of it?

Kumparak: Of the four Void experiences right now, three are tie-ins to existing, bigger IPs [while one is a smaller, original project.] How do these two approaches compare, between working with established IPs or making your own? I think that latter one is called Nicodemus?

Hickman: Nicodemus! Yeah. The ‘demon of evanishment’. That was kind of our first experiment with internal IP, and what we could do with it, and there’s a bunch of gambles on that one. How would people respond to a horror thing in The Void?

Horror tends to be very popular in VR, because of the reaction you get — but what would it be like if you take that to the next level with things like sensory effects… would it be too real for people? What could we learn from that? We definitely learned a lot.

There’s a lot of freedom with making your own IP, and all the experimenting you can do that you just can’t take chances on when you’re working with a major one, because its a much bigger financial bet, there are just so many more resources being poured into that.

That being said, Nicodemus came out great. We got a AAA studio — Ninja Theory — to build it for us, and we couldn’t be more proud of it. I hope people go, because a lot of experimenting and fun stuff we tried in there really paid off.

On the other hand, there are these great worlds that people want to visit! This galaxy far, far away that people can’t wait to step into, but can’t necessarily travel across the country to do it. I love being able to provide this feeling that you’re on your own Star Wars adventure, while making it accessible to everyone.

I love both sides of the business. I think, strategically, there’s definitely a balance to be struck there. I want to bring people in with Star Wars, and Ralph Breaks VR, Ghostbusters, and then I want them to understand the Void, to know what it was, and be like ‘What’s this Nicodemus thing?’

Kumparak: I assume that demand tends to be bigger with experiences that have a bigger IP behind it — has that proven to be true?

Hickman: Oh, for sure. I mean, it’s a very simple analogy. You walk into a movie theater. There’s a new Star Wars movie playing, or there’s this scary thing I’ve never heard of — which ticket should I buy?

You’ll get people who are like ‘Let’s try the scary thing, I’m not a big Star Wars fan.’ and that’s great. But there are lots of Star Wars fans out there! I’m one of them. We definitely get lots of people in because of Star Wars, and that’s by design.

Kumparak: Do you think you’ll continue experimenting with original IPs?

Hickman: Absolutely.

Kumparak: The bigger IPs — how’d you get them onboard?

Hickman: We built a really good product and took it to the [2016] TED conference in Vancouver, and we showed a lot of people there what we were capable of doing with our very first IP, the ‘Curse of the Serpent’s Eye’. It was this sort of temple, classic 1930s adventure type thing. A lot of people from different industries went through it to see what it was all about.

When we started, there was nothing like this — we were the first to do this. VR, at the time especially, had a lot of buzz around it, so it just got a lot of attention from a lot of different groups. Sony was kind of the first to take a chance with us. Once we built Ghostbusters, and everybody saw that we really could do this, and that it could be amazing, it really opened the door even wider.

Other parties started inquiring into what else we could do. When Disney approached us, and started asking us questions, we couldn’t have been more excited. Obviously, they have a lot of good stories, but also a lot of experience in immersive entertainment.

[Disney invested in The Void in 2017, bringing it on as a part of its 2017 Disney Accelerator batch.]

Kumparak: When you’re working with a bigger IP, who’s paying who? Are you paying a licensing fee, or is it a rev share?

Hickman: Every project is a bit different. Honestly, it really depends on who we’re making the deal with, and how the negotiations play out.

Kumparak: What’s the development cycle for something like these? Once you have the concept, and have the IP on board, how long does it take to make a new experience?

Hickman: Usually about a year.

Some people are like ‘Oh that’s a long time’, and others are like ‘That’s really quick!’

I guess it depends on how much experience they have in the industry to know the difference… but it’s actually quick, very quick, for all the detail and all the work that has to go into what is essentially a very manual process in the end. We have to physically put people through the stage to test it. We can’t just set up these giant farms of computers and have people find the bugs in it… we have to manually shove people through the experience and painstakingly find where it breaks, what’s wrong with it, where the bugs are. The physical side of The Void makes it much more challenging.

Kumparak: Has there ever been something that you really wanted to put into an experience, but when you put people into it they just didn’t get it?

Hickman: Oh yes, absolutely.

Kumparak: Any examples?

Hickman: [When we were designing Ralph Breaks VR with ILMxLab]… in one of the sections, what we planned for was for everyone to see a circle on the floor relative to themselves. You’d walk in, and it’d say ‘Okay, everyone stand in your circle.’ You’d see your own circle, you’d stand in it, it makes perfect sense… on paper.

In practice [laughs], what we’d see was Mom coming in with Billy, we’ll call him, and be like ‘Billy, go stand in your circle!’ and point at her own circle. Billy would be like ‘I am standing in my circle!’ and she’d be like ‘No, Billy!’, and she’s shoving her kid, like ‘Come on! Do what you’re told, Billy!’ And he’s like ‘Mom, you’re shoving me out of my circle.’

It’s this whole thing of relativistics that people aren’t used to in the real world. It becomes very confusing very fast for people who aren’t familiar with a medium like this.

So in that particular experience, we just made [multiple] circles on the floor and said ‘Go stand in a circle.’ and that worked a lot better.

Kumparak: With each experience taking about a year to build, is there any focus on replayability within one experience? Where you might go through a second time, and have it be slightly different?

Hickman: Nicodemus is that way. There are lots to explore in there. It’s still linear in that you’re going from one room to another to another till you get to the end.. but there is an alternate ending.

If you’ve studied the book that goes along with it [The Void offers players of this experience a booklet that provides some backstory], and you’ve been through it a couple times, and really understand the different puzzles, it pays off with a different ending. It’s not a huge, grand different ending, but it’s a different ending, and it’s very cool for those who’ve read the story.

That book finishes without an ending. You don’t know what happens to the characters in the book… but if you’ve read the book, and know the secrets, you can find out. The two things tie together. So we’ve had people go through Nicodemus 3-4 different times to get to that different ending.

I love that kind of approach. There’s a lot of experimenting we’re doing right now with non-linear gameplay, and how we can still make that work. That’s a big part of virtual reality in my mind. Part of what makes it feel real is the agency it provides you; the more agency we can provide our travelers, the better the experience will be.

Kumparak: How would you do non-linear VR in a pre-set layout?

Hickman: I call it the linear/non-linear flow, and it’s brilliant. But that’s all I can say about it right now.

Kumparak: The Void exists solely in these physical retail spaces. Do you think home VR takes off?

Hickman: I think it already is, under a certain lens, taking off right now. The [Oculus] Quest is selling really well. I think that’s a good sign of the trajectory that VR is on.

I’m optimistic, I really am. I hope VR does take off in a really big way. I don’t think it’s hit some massive tipping point yet. I think the technology still, even from where we’re at, needs to advance.

I think we need a wider field of view… Half of the things Oculus has talked about with [its Half Dome prototype, which has a wider field of view and does things like track the position of eyes to determine what you’re looking at and adjust focus accordingly]… just get that going! That’s what people want, they just don’t know it. People want to put that headset on and be like ‘Holy crap, I’m in another world’. It’s this awe-inspiring, amazing moment.

We’re getting there. The technology is getting there. There’s a lot of rendering and processing advances, all of these technologies, light fields and things that are in the pipe, that are coming, that we’re almost to. At some point, it really hits that wow factor, where this is exactly what we expected when we first heard about VR.

Kumparak: If home VR does take off, what does that mean for The Void?

Hickman: Honestly, I think it means more business for us. It helps us convey the medium without having to teach everyone how to use it — which I like doing! I love it when people come to The Void and they’re like ‘I’ve never done VR before’ and we can be like ‘Ohhhh man, you’ve gotta do this’ because it’ll set them up to really believe in VR for the rest of their life if this is their first impression.

But then there is this challenge of people seeing The Void and being like ‘Oh, it’s VR, I did that with Google Cardboard, I know what this is.’ And… it’s like, nah dude, that’s not this at all. There’s so much more to this than just even the glasses part.

Trying to convey that information will be easier the more ubiquitous VR gets. And in the home itself, there are lots of cool tricks that people are doing to make it more sensory and encompassing but, in the end, it’s like saying ‘People are going to build a roller coaster in their backyard’ and I just don’t think that’s going to happen. You can build cool experiences, and play games, and all those things, but if you want to get on the roller coaster you’ve got to actually go to the park.

Kumparak: Are there still any technical challenges you’re figuring out as a company?

Hickman: Oh for sure. Honestly, I feel like we’re in the beginning days. VOID technology, specifically, should be.. this vision of where I want to go, where the company should be at, we’re still years out from that. We’re providing an amazing product, don’t get me wrong…. but it could be so much more immersive, and give you so much more agency, there could be so much more effects, and all these different things that we’re building toward, but it just takes time.

Kumparak: What sort of things?

Hickman: Getting our rigs lighter, that’s key. I want younger people to get in there, I want families to be able to experience this more — not just mom and dad and the teenagers, but even the younger kids.

Ralph Breaks VR is just amazing for kids. I put my six-year-old through it, and she won’t stop talking about it. She was in the Internet with Ralph and Penelope, and it was real to her! I want to be able to provide that to more people.

The VOID Suits
The Void’s virtual reality rigs, comprised of a VR headset with built-in hand tracking, and a vest which vibrates in-sync with in game actions.

There’s definitely work on the hardware side we’re looking at, the technology itself is critical.

There’s interesting research in [body] tracking we’re doing, and research, as I mentioned before, in linear/non-linear gameplay, and giving people more agency… but I can’t get more specific than that. But on the horizon, there’s just a lot of really cool stuff that I can’t wait to show people.

Kumparak: After expanding, what’s next?

Hickman: I think it’s a lot about getting the word out. Making sure that we’re not just expanding, but we’re filling the locations, and getting people to understand what The Void is. When we have the infrastructure [all over] to support that it’ll be a lot easier, versus just saying ‘Oh yeah, fly to Orlando and see it’.

There’s advancing the technology, and also moving into other experiences. Not just doing these smaller experiences that are twenty, thirty minutes… something that’s MUCH longer, that interests me a lot. It’s the one thing people say: I want more. So we make it longer, and people go ‘No, I want more!’ and we make it longer, and they still want more.

I gotta start thinking: what would happen if we stuck somebody in there for a couple of hours? And they were living in that world for that long? Is there a demand for that?

I’m pretty sure there is.

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