What to Know
Founded in Utah by magician Curtis Hickman, The VOID offers "hyper-real" VR experiences in retail storefronts
Buttons, doors and tools in the experience are all tied to real-world physical objects you can touch
The VOID's pop-up in Westfield San Francisco Center is showing "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire" for about $30 per person
Countless articles have been written about the plight of American shopping malls, struggling to reinvent themselves as the likes of Amazon and Netflix lure shoppers and moviegoers out of sprawling shopping centers and into the warm glow of their mobile devices.
This, however, is not one of those articles.
Instead, this is the story of a magician with an entrepreneurial streak, who looked deep inside his dusty book of spells and found a way to turn those struggling shopping malls into something new: a portal to another dimension.
As one might expect of a good illusionist, Curtis Hickman exudes confidence about his skills in the art of deception.
"I've designed things used by some of the top magicians," he proudly said during our interview.
But the kind of illusion he's decided to tackle in his new venture isn't one that takes place on a stage, or at a kid's birthday party. It happens in retail storefronts springing up across the country that are boldly branded, "The VOID."
The foreboding name, Hickman explains, is an acronym that stands for "Vision Of Infinite Dimensions." To him, the virtual reality experience The VOID offers is neither a game nor a movie. It's a fully immersive voyage to another dimension — a far-away place that may or may not exist.
"If we're going to put you inside of Star Wars, that's an impossible reality," he said. "That's not a reality you can travel to and visit. So we use a lot of magic theory and design behind the scenes to help convince you, even if it's just subconsciously, that these things are real."
At more than a dozen North American locations, the $30 half-hour experience starts with a mission briefing before it's time to suit up in The VOID's proprietary VR gear. At permanent locations, The VOID can show multiple VR experiences side-by-side. In its new pop-up at Westfield San Francisco Centre, it's only offering "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire." There's a permanent San Francisco store in the works just down the escalators from the pop-up, along with another store planned for Santa Clara.
As one might expect from a magician, Hickman — The VOID's co-founder and chief creative officer — is secretive about what goes on in the dark abyss behind the sliding metal doors visitors enter as the experience begins. Wearing a head-mounted VR display with noise-blocking headphones, a powerful computer fitted as a backpack, and a huge battery to power it all, you'll look ready to blast off into space as the doors slowly close behind you. Sensors on the front of the visor track your hand movements, and haptic devices in the vest jar you with a "thump" if you're hit by enemy fire.
"What we call the 'stage,' the environment you're in, has all these little props and touchables and sensors that are tracking where you are, what you're doing," Hickman said. "We've spent a lot of years making (the stage) an environment that we can change up quickly and easily, to allow people to go into different dimensions and different realities without too much work."
Up to four people can go through the experience together, handing off objects and high-fiving each other as they would in real life. Walls, doors, buttons and objects in the virtual world are carefully matched to physical objects on the stage — a fact that had early visitors to the San Francisco pop-up in disbelief.
"Like, when there was buttons and things, I wasn't expecting you'd be able to touch them," one girl said in amazement. "It was very real."
Hickman said helping players overcome that learning curve, and understand that it's okay to walk through doorways and reach for things with their bare hands, is where the theory of magic really enters the picture.
"There's these things called 'convincers,' which are sort of these psychological little moments or hints that we put into the experience," he said. "One simple example is when you begin 'Secrets of the Empire,' the first thing we ask you to do is to sit down on this chair. Now, all you're seeing is a digital representation of a chair that, in your experience, may or may not exist. It's just a completely digital object. But we're asking you to trust us and put your weight on it. And so as soon as you do, that digital object has a sense of permanence. It becomes real. And then, the other things around you that you can't touch — those become more and more real as well. I call that the 'Path of Conviction.' And it's something that magicians do as well."
The Star Wars experience is packed with subtle cues that it's more than a video game. Guests can feel the floor beneath them vibrate and lurch as an elevator comes to an abrupt stop, and feel the wind in their faces as they travel across a ravine. Getting dangerously close to the molten lava below, the air suddenly feels hot.
"We've even had, on occasion, blind people go through The VOID and still have an amazing experience, because the experience doesn't solely rely on visuals, but all these extra things as well," Hickman said.
But the greatest challenge for The VOID, founded in 2015, is that it's creating a market from scratch, for a type of entertainment that hasn't previously been available to most consumers. Hickman believes that challenge is a short-term hurdle that his team of magicians can soon make vanish into thin air.
"Honestly, I think it's gonna hit this tipping point, and it's just gonna really become a mainstream thing," he said. "People are gonna decide when they wake up in the morning, 'Am I gonna go to the movies, or am I gonna go to The VOID?'"
The San Francisco pop-up is scheduled to stay open under the dome of Westfield San Francisco Centre for two months while The VOID builds a larger, permanent home on the mall's ground floor. To those on the fence about checking it out, Hickman made a bold promise:
"You won't be disappointed," he said. "It's like stepping into Star Wars. It's as good, if not better than anything else you're gonna be able to do tonight."