#299: Using Magic to Create Astonishment with The VOID

Curtis-HickmanThe VOID started when Curtis Hickman brought on James Jensen to do some pre-visualization of the Evermore theme park that he was developing with Ken Bretschneider. When Curtis asked James if he had any other cool ideas, he shared his long-time vision of creating a virtual world that was overlaid on top of a physical world to create a mixed reality experience. They created an initial proof of concept that convinced them they were on to something really compelling, but they still had to solve a number of big problems in order to create their “Vision Of Infinite Dimensions” that The VOID set out to accomplish. So the VOID turned to ‘magic’ to solve them.


Curtis is a professional illusionist who spent many years designing magic tricks for some of the world’s top magicians, and he started to solve some the VOID’s design problems by using what he knows about magic. He independently discovered VR techniques that are more widely known as redirected walking, and he expanded upon these to crate an experience that allows the user to make choices in exploring infinite mixed reality worlds using their physical template. I had a chance to catch up with Curtis after trying the VOID in Utah before Sundance, and he shared with me other insights for what VR designers can learn using techniques of magic.

The VOID is going to be shown to all of the TED attendees this week, and so keep an eye out for reactions. Here’s a poster with the trigger warnings provided to TED attendees with sensitivities:

Take note of the “sudden drops” warning. I was told that not all of the people going through will experience a sudden drop, but I expect some pretty strong reactions from those who do. Keep an eye news coming out of TED this week to hear how people are responding. This beyond room-scale experience may be a lot of people’s first exposure to VR, and I’d expect it to blow some minds.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:12.237] Curtis Hickman: I am Curtis Hickman. I am the president of Void Studios and one of the founders. So currently I'm working to develop experiences, illusions, designs, and all things creative for The Void.

[00:00:28.669] Kent Bye: How did you enter into The Void? How did the story start for you?

[00:00:34.142] Curtis Hickman: Yeah, I don't know. I imagine if you ask the three partners, you might get three different answers. So I'd be interested to see how this turned out. But for me, I was working with Ken on a project called Evermore. And I was the head attractions designer over there. And so I was working on a number of different attractions, different haunted experiences, really immersive stuff, but done in the real world. And one day, I proposed to Ken that we visualize the park in 3D, like through a game engine, so that we could really see our sight lines and understand what the park would look like after we built it. So I hunted around and found James and James came in and they built this, you know, amazing Victorian village of Evermore in Unity and we could kind of walk around in it and take a look at how it might turn out. And, you know, I was just, I was working on an attraction and it just wasn't really coming to me. So I turned to James who'd shown some aptitude for really creative ideas and asked him if he had anything he thought we should do. He said, oh, you know, there's just one idea that I've always wanted to do, and that's map VR over the physical world. I'm like, man, what do you mean? Can you do that? Is that a thing? Because back then, nobody was really walking around in VR. And if you were, you were probably at some sort of university doing some scholarly work. It just wasn't a commercial endeavor. And he said, yeah, no, I think you could. And both he and I have visual effects backgrounds. We started chatting about it, and I said, well, you know, this is pretty cool. I've got a meeting with Ken. I'll pitch to Ken, and we'll see how that goes. And Ken thought it was awesome, of course. And so we were like, great. Yeah, we'll put this in Evermore as an attraction. And very quickly, we realized that this wasn't just some attraction to be put into a park alone. This was a whole business opportunity. This was something that the world was waiting for. So we decided to create The Void.

[00:02:19.147] Kent Bye: When was the moment when you knew it was going to work?

[00:02:21.768] Curtis Hickman: Huh. You know, for me personally, I didn't know. I mean, when we started walking around, we had this really simple demo of a space station that was a hallway that was literally just a little loop around a single wall. And the tracking was terrible. You know, the visuals were really kind of dumbed down and as simple as we could make it, you were tethered. And, you know, I stepped into that world and walked around that wall. And while it was kind of off and weird, it was a completely viable, like, real thing. You know, you were walking around in a VR world. And I remember laughing and just thinking, oh, man, this is a real thing. This is going to happen. So that was the first moment. I'll have to say there were two, because we got to that point. It was like, OK, great. You know, the concept's going to work out, at least the foundation of mapping VR under the physical. But then we still had to deal with the idea of having a world where you could make decisions. Do I want to go left or go right? And explore. And it was very important to us that we had that option. Because we could make linear experiences no problem in a giant warehouse, but you wouldn't be able to really make any decisions as far as to what you were going to do. To me, it's a big part of reality, right? You can walk out, and if you wanted to, you could just keep walking until you got to the coast from here, right? So we wanted to give people a lot more options, and that was our next big fundamental problem, and one that I was able to solve with magic, which was kind of cool. Tell me about that. The idea is basically trying to create a space that's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. And for a magician, that's kind of like how I would look at it. I was a magician for over a decade. I designed things for, you know, some really kind of cool magic guys and was deeply involved in the world and studied theory and illusion design especially. And so when Ken and I and James were first talking about the concept, we said, man, this is going to take a lot of room. I don't know if we can even do this. So guys, give me a couple days. I got a really crazy idea. I think we can solve this, in essence, with magic. So I went back to my house and that night was just kind of thinking through it and had this wild idea, right, of how to actually let the universe fold in on top of itself. And, you know, I was in essence creating redirected walking, which I had no idea existed. only in a way that can use walls. So that we, you know, if you've ever done redirected walking with anyone else, they put you in a big gymnasium, right? And they use sort of these parabolic curves and things to shift you away from the borders and keep you in the space. And what we do, we have walls, so it has to physically be there the whole way through. You have to be able to reach out at any time and say, okay, there's a wall there. And it feels right. And that was the challenge. So we essentially came up with this thing we call the infinite hallway, which allows you to indefinitely think you're walking in a straight line, when in fact you're circling around and around and around.

[00:05:05.897] Kent Bye: Yeah, in the academic world, I've seen some as the minimum radius for redirected walking as like some around 22 meters. But what's the minimum amount of curvature or radius of the curve of a semicircle that you can pull off and still feel like you're walking in a straight line, but it's actually curved?

[00:05:24.278] Curtis Hickman: Well, I mean, there's a reason that our stages are 60 feet, right? I mean, that was derived from all of our experimenting. And that was the smallest we could possibly get it while still maintaining the illusion and not having people literally trip over their own feet or start feeling queasy while they were going through in the redirected space. And so that 30-foot radius is kind of a sweet spot for us.

[00:05:43.198] Kent Bye: Cool. And, you know, there's other different types of change blindness and, you know, other tricks, but because there's physical walls there, are you limited to only like using, you know, you're walking around a corner and maybe you're turning more than you're actually turning. And, you know, what are, what other kinds of things are you doing in order to kind of get this sense of space expansion?

[00:06:03.757] Curtis Hickman: So a lot of the usual stuff, right? Obviously, transitioning levels, as you experienced, is always a classic way in VR to kind of give you a bigger sense of space. And yeah, I use what I call untouchable walls. These are walls that psychologically don't look like you should touch them, and so people don't, which is great because then I can put a virtual wall in where there should be a physical wall and don't have people, you know, falling over as they reach out to touch it. And so we can use those kind of walls to create spaces that are shaped differently than our actual environment, even though pieces of them still match our walls. I like to think of what we do as being the opposite of augmented reality. Augmented reality being, obviously, that we're augmenting the real world with the virtual world. And here, we just augment the virtual world with the real world. So we can't replace everything. You'll go through, you'll see rocks. You'll be like, oh, I'm going to pick up that rock and throw it. Well, no, you're not, because I'm not going to put that rock in the void. But we'll still be able to do little tricks and things to augment that. You might reach out for the rock and feel a haptic bump in your hand, or see it roll away from you and you just can't quite grab it, right? So we do everything we can to maintain the illusion of reality while keeping you in it. So yeah, everything from changing the environment from one room to the next. Our full stages have rooms that are very similar in shape design to each other, so that you're never quite sure where in the stage you are, which is going to help a lot with that. And then just reskinning everything, adjusting for height and contrast. And in the end, honestly, once you get lost in the story as well, that's quite significant.

[00:07:31.787] Kent Bye: And because you are the president of the studios, then what has this unlocked in terms of narrative and storytelling and interaction for you?

[00:07:40.610] Curtis Hickman: You know, I like to think of it like Hitchcock, actually. Hitchcock once had this theory that there were three kinds of characters. There are victims, there are witnesses, and there are killers. And I like to think of VR entertainment that same way. You can go in and you can be a witness, right? I mean, you're the camera in the experience. So you're going to watch a guy and a girl fight and then one goes into one place and the other goes to another place and you can decide now who you're going to follow and what point of view of the story you're going to get. But you're not going to affect the story in any way. You're just going to witness it. Or you can be a victim. That's like going through a haunted house and things are jumping out and they're scaring you and you're being affected by the environment. Even things that are like cathartic are very meditative and transitional. Things that are you know life promoting or affirming are things that are victim experiences because you're affected by the environment even though you don't affect it necessarily but you're more than witnessing it it actually knows and is aware of you and affects you and Then of course there's killer experiences and that's really an experience that you affect because you're in there and you affect the story personally like a killer in a story would and then of course you can combine those three different things so You can have experiences where at times you're a witness and then you enter into the story and become a killer or at times they're simply a victim or whatever. And so it's kind of taking this philosophy of these three different points of view of entertainment that have kind of really driven a lot of the experiences and things that we're doing at The Void and the directions we're taking for our future experiences.

[00:09:03.071] Kent Bye: And so it sounds like, you know, there's agency, which is like the interaction within a story and balancing story with agency can be tricky sometimes to lose control of the narrative. I'm curious, like from your own perspective of that balance of how do you tell a story but yet allow people to impact it?

[00:09:20.780] Curtis Hickman: That comes down to the illusion of choice, right? So in magic, there's a thing called equivoque, which is to say if you have two objects, right? And I say, okay, you have a knife and a spoon. And I say, okay, hand me one of those two. And you hand me the spoon. I say, okay, that leaves you with the knife, right? And then I hold up a piece of paper that says, you chose the knife, right? I do it the other way, and I say, OK, I'm an object, and you hand me the knife. I say, OK, great, put down the spoon, and I hold up my prediction. You chose the knife. And either way, I'm right, even though it felt like a free choice to you. And that's an extremely simple example, right? And you can make much more complicated story structures that allow for these sort of nonlinear narratives that still keep you confined within the bounds of what we're attempting to do. which is actually a big reason why I hired my dad, which sounds weird, maybe, unless you know who my dad is. It's this guy named Tracy Hickman, who is a well-known fantasy author and game designer, especially known for game design in D&D, and was one of the founders of that whole movement. And so one of the first things we did when we needed a story designer guy is I went to my father and said, look, you're a New York Times bestselling author. You're this amazing young designer, you're this legend. Would you mind coming to work for us? Because we could really use that kind of knowledge for these experiences. And luckily and thankfully he jumped at it. And so we've really benefited from that as well because we not just have a guy that can tell really good stories, like New York Times bestselling stories, but a guy that knows how to tell those stories in a game narrative format.

[00:10:53.766] Kent Bye: And so what can virtual reality learn from magic?

[00:10:57.517] Curtis Hickman: Oh, man, I could probably talk for like hours on that subject or write a book on it, right? But I think the biggest thing is this, and this is the analogy I always like to give. If you go to a magic show and you see a magician floating a ball on stage, what you experience is your eyes telling you, oh, wow, man, that's a floating ball. That's incredible. But your brain, being the conscious, intelligent thing that it is, says, no, stuff doesn't float. There's strings or something. This guy's full of crap. So a good magician, of course, will then walk over to the ball and he'll wave his arms around. It'll put a hoop around the ball. He will prove that there are no strings. And you're left with this weird conundrum of seeing the impossible and then having this argument made to you that no, really, it's impossible. And it's that brief moment that magicians often refer to as the moment of astonishment. It's that space where the trap door in your brain opens and you kind of free fall for a second and enter a new reality where stuff does in fact float. Now, of course, your mind catches up with you and says, no, no, no, stuff doesn't float. You just don't know how this is happening, which is why you always get this sort of one-two punch in magic of people going, how'd you do that? Right? It's kind of this gasp and then the question. VR is that. You know, VR is that. VR, well, I should say should be that. It can't just be something for your eyes. There has to be an argument to convince you that what you see is in fact happening. Because otherwise you just sit there and you go, well, You know, yeah, dinosaurs yelling at me, but I mean, it's not really happening because there's no evidence for it. So with The Void, we make arguments. We make all arguments we can to convince you of what's happening. It's why when you go on the elevator, we do everything that we do to convince you that you're moving up. Because we could, I mean, it's the laziest thing in VR, right? I mean, the door's closed, the door's open, you're on a new floor. Congrats, you know. But we really did everything we could to take it to the next level. To the point where we have people, not all the time, but more often than you'd think, yell down at us saying, hey, do you guys come up here with me or should I just keep going? Like, I don't know. And I love it, you know, I love it so much. I'll get down on the ground and yell back up at them. Yeah, yeah, keep going. And that's what I'm trying to create, the actual illusion of reality. And just like a magician, it's not enough to show you. You have to make an argument to say that this reality you're viewing isn't just for your eyes, but it's something you're experiencing.

[00:13:18.060] Kent Bye: Do you have any favorite stories of people going through the void and feeling astonished?

[00:13:23.698] Curtis Hickman: Oh, gosh. Let's see. When Felicia Day went through, that was awesome. She freaked out the entire time and loved it. Really got into it. The screams, the pure astonishment. And she's just a delight anyway. So that was really fun. My favorite experiences, honestly, are when hardcore VR and industry professional people go through. Because I'm always tense. Like, oh, these people have seen everything. What are they going to think of The Void? And they always come out and just say, that was amazing. Like that was incredible. You guys really have something here. And it's not only validating, but it's just heartwarming to know that all your hard work's paying off. And so I guess that's not a specific example, but really those are the things that have meant the most to me.

[00:14:08.766] Kent Bye: Yeah, I could say that, you know, I was, had low expectations because I was like, uh, you know, like, what's it going to be some sort of like carnival ask? Like I've seen a lot of VR, but I was really that moment of walking around for just a few minutes. And my mind was like, wait, like, how is this even possible? Like, like, it just feels like you're in a maze and you're walking forever. I mean, my mind had just kind of mapped out that it was in this huge space. So yeah, I think that moment of just. realizing what's going on, and then to follow someone afterwards to see, oh my god, I walked in circles three times and I had no idea.

[00:14:46.626] Curtis Hickman: Yeah, right? Thank you. That's perfect, right? That's exactly what we're looking for. And I think that's another argument we make. It's a great point, because you're not just walking five to 10 feet and then seeing a virtual wall and saying, OK, I'm in my box. This is where I'm stuck. You just keep going. And you get to the point after a certain amount of time where you just sort of have to let go, because there's no hope of remembering where you are in the real world. And all you're left with is that virtual world, because the real world's melted away. And to the point where when you go back and you remember what you did, you know, you really do remember being somewhere else, even though it didn't necessarily look perfect. You just have this memory of being in a completely digital space, which I think is fantastic.

[00:15:32.034] Kent Bye: Great. So finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:15:39.559] Curtis Hickman: Oh, wow. You know, I look forward to virtual reality connecting people in more meaningful ways. Maybe that's like the traditional answer for any technology company. You're like, oh, I look forward to this technology reconnecting people. But I think with The Void, it's a completely valid and important part of what we do. We're not isolating people in VR in their homes and sticking them in headsets and telling them to connect virtually over the web. They're physically together in a space and physically interacting with each other in a digital playground. And so it's not just something that they, you know, sit in a dark theater and watch something. You're not even just sitting next to each other with a game console clicking your thumbs. You're like physically interacting and connecting through experiences that are sometimes scary, sometimes dramatic. We're putting people in situations and scenarios that allow them to connect with each other. And again, and not just in a digital way, but in a real world physical way. And so I look forward to that. I look forward to being able to have people go to a space and connect with each other by solving problems and doing the impossible and learning more and not just about this digital world that they're exploring, but about each other.

[00:16:54.533] Kent Bye: Great. And anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:16:59.733] Curtis Hickman: I'm very, very excited for the stuff that's coming out. We have some really cool announcements coming up as far as content goes. And we're very excited for the future of The Void. And I can't wait for everyone to see it.

[00:17:10.784] Kent Bye: OK, great. Well, thank you. Thank you. And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash Voices of VR.

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