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The Void's co-founder takes us backstage

Magic is hyperreal

Welcome to Lowpass, a newsletter about the future of entertainment and the next big hardware platforms, including smart TVs, ambient computing and AR / VR. This week: A new book takes us behind the scenes at The Void, and Google wants smart TV owners to spend more money.

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A magician reveals his secrets

The Void co-founder Curtis Hickman has a new book out: “Hyper-Reality: The Art of Designing Impossible Experiences” takes you behind the scenes at The Void, reveals how the company engineered many of its past experiences, and explains why location-based VR can be so powerful.

The Void was one of the pioneers of location-based VR entertainment. The company began as an offshoot of a Utah-based theme park, and then went on to open locations in dozens of cities including New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco, London and Dubai. In early 2020, the pandemic forced The Void to shut down its locations, and unfortunately, they never reopened — The Void defaulted on a loan, lost key partners, and ultimately, one of its investors took over the company’s assets.

Hickman began writing his book during the pandemic as a way to both reflect on The Void’s legacy and not go stir-crazy during lockdown. I’m glad he didn’t pick up sourdough baking instead, because this book is great. Hickman is funny, self-deprecating, opinionated and extremely knowledgeable about his craft.

Part of this is due to his background: Fascinated with both magic and theme parks at an early age, he long dreamed of building something akin to the “Star Trek” Holodeck that let people step beyond their everyday reality, and into fantasy worlds inhabited by impossible creatures. He ended up studying both stage magic and imagineering, and combined the two trades with cutting-edge tech to build The Void.

I was lucky enough to try four different The Void experiences before the company shut down, including one that never made it into any of its retail locations, and was always impressed by the company’s ability to combine VR worlds with physical props (a real bench you could sit on, doors that would open and close, buttons you could press, and yes, blasters) to create incredibly immersive worlds. It definitely helps to understand the book if you’ve gone through at least one of these experiences, be it “Ghostbusters: Dimension,” “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” “Avengers: Damage Control,” or the horror-themed “Nicodemus.”

But even if you never made it to any The Void location, and only tried one of its competitors (Nomadic, Spaces, Sandbox VR or Hologate), or perhaps are just curious about what’s next for VR and location-based entertainment, the book is worth a read. After all, Hickman and his colleagues at The Void literally wrote the playbook for this nascent industry.

The 52 laws of hyper-reality design were a list of rules and guidelines The Void developed to guide the design of new experiences, both in-house and together with partners. Hickman’s book contains a full list of those laws, and he spends a good chunk of the book breaking them down to explain what something like “beware of media apathy” (law 15, if you’re counting) actually means.

  • Hickman explains how The Void arrived at these laws / rules through trial and error. For instance, the company initially struggled with conveying the backstory of its “Ghostbusters” experience. Even if it told guests why they were doing what they were doing during the experience, most seemingly didn’t listen, or immediately forgot what they were told — something Hickman describes as media apathy. The solution was a pre-show, often featuring a recording of the actual actors of the movie an experience was based on, that clearly explained the setting and objective of that experience.

  • The Void used to go to great lengths to not show its visitors how the sausage was made, as to not break the illusion. In the book, Hickman does take us backstage, and in turn reveals how small the company’s facilities really were. “While your stage may be tiny, your worlds should feel enormous,” he writes, explaining how The Void used techniques like redirected walking and something he calls “folded space:” A single hallway may first be part of a dark cavern, and then transform into a narrow path hugging a mountain with a breathtaking view over a vast valley, all thanks to VR and a few strategically placed fans blowing air and mist.

  • A good chunk of the book consists of explanations of illusions The Void didn’t end up using (including an Elastigirl-like stretched arm for an “Incredibles” experience that never came to be). Reading it made me feel a bit like the two writers in in the movie “Elf,” who find a notebook chock-full of great ideas accidentally left behind by legendary children’s book author Miles Finch.

  • While the book is primarily about location-based, Void-style VR (or hyper-reality, as Hickman calls it), there are also plenty of useful lessons in here for in-home VR, whether it’s about motion sickness or directing a user’s attention. Plus, Hickman doesn’t hold back with his own opinions (“What is the best way to tell stories in VR? Don’t.”), and also has some interesting thoughts on the future of his industry, including the role mixed reality devices and AI may play one day.

  • And did I mention that the book contains some actual magic tricks you can perform with a simple deck of cards, no VR required?

The pandemic may have killed The Void, but the company did struggle with a number of challenges, including frequent leadership changes and expensive real estate, even before lockdowns were enacted. This book is not about those struggles, but Hickman hints at some of them between the lines (“Money makes cool things hard.”) The good news is that The Void has been working on a comeback. I really hope it will happen, but until then, this book may just be the next best thing.

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Google wants to make more money with Android TV

Google held its annual TV partner bootcamp in San Jose earlier this month. The company used the two-day event to share updates on its living room efforts with what I’ve been told were over 300 device makers and other industry partners. I’ve heard that one of the themes this year was a bigger monetization push that’s meant to drive up the ARPU for devices running Google TV / Android TV.

As if on cue, Google announced a first initiative to do just that this week: The company’s Android TV platform will get a dedicated “Shop” tab to more easily access transactional VOD, or as lay people like to call it: Movie and TV show rentals and purchases.

“Whether you are searching for a new and popular movie not yet available on other streaming services or you are looking to make a one-time movie purchase without a subscription, the Shop tab makes it easy,” the company said in a forum post announcing the feature.

Google tweaked the UI of its Google TV platform earlier this year, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to see the Shop tab show up on Google TV as well if it ends up being a money maker on Android TV.

What else

Netflix got rid of its basic plan in Canada. Canadians who sign up for a new Netflix account now have to choose whether they want to watch with ads ($5.99 CAD), or pay at least $16.49 CAD for an ad-free plan. Makes sense from a good-better-best pricing strategy point-of-view, I guess.

YouTube is experimenting with online games. The video platform is reportedly looking to add casual games called “Playables.”

Meta launches a VR subscription service. For $7.99 per month, Quest+ offers access to two curated games per month.

Google may have killed its AR glasses. The company is reportedly focusing on building an XR version of Android for third-party devices instead.

It will be challenging to build VR games for Apple’s Vision Pro. The device is reportedly pausing all gameplay as soon as a player deviates 5 feet from their starting position. In other words: Room-scale games are a no-no on the Vision Pro.

Paramount+ with Showtime debuts for $11.99 per month. The ad-supported Paramount+ Essential plan (without Showtime) will cost $5.99 per month. How much for a service with a better name?

SiriusXM is shutting down Stitcher. The podcast aggregator will shut down at the end of August.

That’s it

I recently began watching “Mythic Quest” on Apple TV+, and initially wasn’t quite sure whether I should stick with it. In general, I try to avoid comedies about industries I cover; it’s just too close, and not something I want to think about at night. That’s also the main reason I never got into “Silicon Valley.” (Well, that and the fact that the show is just not funny. Don’t @ me.)

However, this week, I watched "A Dark Quiet Death," and it was quite frankly one of the best episodes of a comedy I’ve ever seen. I know I’m late to the party, but if you haven’t watched the show, give it a try.

Thanks for reading, have a great weekend!

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