As CEO of The Void, Cliff Plumer has to think big. Virtual reality fans are dishing out money for PC-based and mobile-based VR systems. But The Void is making location-based VR experiences must create a much bigger impression, since consumers will be paying for that experience in places such as theme parks.
The Void created the Ghostbusters: Dimension VR experience at the Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in New York. Tickets cost $53, and for that price, consumers get tetherless VR, 3D audio, motion sensors, and other kinds of feedback that attempt to immerse you in the world of Ghostbusters. The fans put on VR headsets attached to backpacks and then hunt ghosts with a proton gun in their hands. Plumer believes these extras will help make it more realistic and will help distinguish The Void’s products from low-end VR.
And Disney announced that The Void will create a new VR experience at Disney’s theme parks: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire. I interviewed Plumer, who has 30 years of experience in the entertainment technology industry, as he was finishing up a visit to Israel for the Beyond Reality event, which took VR leaders on a tour of Israel’s VR and augmented reality research centers. We talked about making VR more accessible and affordable, and how companies can survive the current slowdown in VR sales.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: What drew you Beyond Reality? What do you hope to get out of this event?
Cliff Plumer: One, I’ve always been interested in visiting Israel. I’ve seen a lot of amazing technology come out of this country. It was an opportunity to come over here and meet some people, meet some companies, and just see the country and the culture. It was hard to pass up. It worked out well. I haven’t been disappointed.
GamesBeat: There’s a lot of AR and VR technology in development in Israel.
Plumer: It’s impressive. I hadn’t known the depth of the support that the tech community gets here, both privately and from the government.
GamesBeat: What’s a good way to introduce readers to The Void and the kind of work that it does, especially those who haven’t been able to make it to New York for your Ghostbusters production?
Plumer: One thing we try to emphasize is we don’t look at ourselves as just a VR company. All of our experiences are designed to be multisensory. Depending on the experience we’re creating, it’s not just something you see and hear. Being able to touch things and smell things — between the haptics and the other 4D effects we add to our experiences, that’s what creates that true immersion, as well as the social aspect. You’re not just interacting in the world we create, but you’re collaborating with the people you play with. It’s very much a social experience as well.
We find, with our guests that go through, that they forget about the technology. They just buy into it. They’re in the moment of that world that they’re exploring, just having fun. Too much of the conversation in the last couple of years has been about the tech, I think. We just need more great experiences that consumers can get excited about and want more of.
GamesBeat: You seem to have voted with the choices you made here, that you don’t want to leave anything out of the experience. You want to load in anything that makes it more immersive, even if it’s not part of a basic platform for VR.
Plumer: Right. We definitely want to gray the border between reality and the virtual world. There are things we’re working on that really play with your brain. Not only do you have to calibrate going into the experience, but you have to calibrate coming out of it. The more we gray that line, the more immersive and unique the experience becomes. We’re doing a lot to prepare our guests to go into the virtual world and come out of it that adds to the overall experience.
GamesBeat: Do you feel that the Ghostbusters experience is a good way to get a lot of people to try it out and pay for it and fund the technology?
Plumer: It was a great start. We’ve learned a ton since we launched that. It’s always hard to predict what consumers might do until you get a product out there. That’s when you learn. You make the necessary changes based on consumer response. Again, we’ve learned a lot in the past year since we launched that first experience.
GamesBeat: And now you’re working with Disney on a Star Wars experience?
Plumer: We’re shooting high. [laughs] It’s been great working with the Walt Disney Company and my friends at Lucasfilm again. We’re obviously excited about that. It’s going to be amazing. In comparison to what we did a year ago, this is the next level.
GamesBeat: Do you think of this as something more like a ride? Obviously, you’re not just treating it like logging into a PC, which is the way a lot of VR experiences have felt.
Plumer: We think of them as experiences. We obviously pay attention to other entertainment experiences out there, and not just in VR. We look at things like escape rooms, or Sleep No More in New York, all those sorts of immersive experience that are new. We try to learn from them and see what parts of those things can be integrated into what we do. With the Star Wars experience, it’s a huge difference from what we’ve done before. I’m sure fans will love it.
GamesBeat: The things you can add beyond VR visuals — hot and cold, vibrations, advanced audio — are these all things you can add to the experience?
Plumer: All those sorts of things, whether it’s to create a sense of motion, hitting all the different senses — there’s a lot we’re doing to enhance the avatars. We’re working on getting those to the point of photorealism, with more fluid motion and things like that. We’re adding more to the avatars you engage with in the experience as well. It’s not just about the world you’re in, but populating those worlds with interesting and engaging characters as well.
GamesBeat: What kind of challenge do you face in satisfying consumers now? You have to up the experience to a point where it’s not something they can do at home.
Plumer: Absolutely. That’s what always motivated me in my film career, always raising the bar. How do you show an audience something they haven’t seen before? It’s no different with what we’re doing at The Void. We always have to get consumers coming back to see something they haven’t seen before. If we achieve that we’ll be successful and keep entertaining customers for a long time.
GamesBeat: Do you see technology having a path into homes? Do you ever seen your company making experiences for a mass consumer market?
Plumer: It’d be a completely different experience. Most consumers don’t have a lot of space in their homes or apartments. It just can’t compare to what we do in a Void center. People still go to amusement parks because you can’t replicate any of that at home. Some of the things that we’re doing, even though we don’t have a very big footprint, are still more than you can do at home, especially that social experience that we try to create.
But there are things we’re doing to create an in-home experience that may prepare you for going to a Void center, or allow you to network in. We’re working on technology where we can have people in different physical locations still share the same virtual worlds. That will give us some flexibility, not just at our Void centers, but for people who can engage from home.
GamesBeat: A lot of those connections seem to be in the works. People are thinking about connecting game shows, connecting people at home, connecting people at location-based experiences. You definitely have to top the bar of the Star Wars AR experience.
Plumer: [Laughs] Working with the folks at the ILM xLAB, they’re always pushing the envelope. They’re pushing us, because that’s what people expect, and that’s what we’re going to deliver.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about where VR is in general? Some people are a bit worried about the slowdown in the consumer market, whether all these startups are going to survive.
Plumer: Yeah, there was a lot of hype in the last couple of years. It’s definitely cooled down. Obviously we’re hoping that when people get a chance to see the Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire experience, they’ll be able to look at it and say, “That’s what we’ve been waiting for.” That’ll help drive the next step for the industry.
It’s in our interest that the whole industry succeeds. This isn’t just about The Void. We don’t want to see failures, because that’s bad for all of us. If we can set a goal that motivates others to shoot for it, then everybody wins and we’ll move on to the next thing.
GamesBeat: Where do you stand on funding? Have you gotten any recently, or are you seeking any at the moment?
Plumer: We’re about to close a round that we’ll talk more about shortly. We’re excited about that. It also brings in some more strategic partners that are going to add a lot of value beyond just their capital.
GamesBeat: It is still possible to raise money, then?
Plumer: Oh, yeah. But I also think what we demonstrate is a real economic model. We’re generating revenue every day. That’s been part of the struggle for a lot of these VR startups. They have interesting ideas and they may have developed some interesting technology, but they haven’t been able to prove out an economic model. We have that, which strengthens our case with investors. They can see our path. They can see that we’re generating revenue now. We’re not pre-revenue.
GamesBeat: You’re in Israel now. What’s your general view of where VR is strong around the world?
Plumer: Frankly, it’s not, yet, other than maybe just awareness in some places. More and more people are hearing the term, but it’s still a very small audience that has experienced it in some way. Unfortunately there has been a lot of bad VR as well. That’s not good for any of us. We have to show consumers great VR experiences that are going to motivate them to re-engage. For us it’s visiting Void centers. We also want consumer adoption to go up, and hopefully all of this will help motivate that second wave.
I don’t think this is that unusual for most new media platforms. They launch with a lot of expectations and maybe then things cool down, but eventually it trends upward again. I believe that will start again, and hopefully we can help trigger that. I still think most people out there, most of the big Silicon Valley companies, believe it’s going to happen. It’s just taking longer than most had expected.
GamesBeat: As far as your own locations, have you figured out what’s a good number for you to have in the future, in different places?
Plumer: Not yet, because we’re still learning, too. We’re also learning about types of locations. It’s one thing for us to put Void centers in theme parks and tourist locations, but we also have a lot of interest from shopping malls, movie theater chains, airports, and other types of locations that we want to test. We want to see what sort of response we get from them, whether it’s temporary audiences who are traveling versus neighborhood audiences, testing how often people might want to come back.
This is the sort of data we’re collecting now. Over the next year, we’ll have a lot of data about which types of locations might work best, especially as it varies around the world. That’s what will drive our growth, rather than just saying we’re going into a thousand shopping malls. We may find that it’s best to use a different mix of types of locations.
GamesBeat: You could do a Jerusalem experience.
Plumer: Absolutely. That’s an area we’re very passionate about. It’s not just about entertainment. We want to use the Void platform for education as well. Coming to a place like Jerusalem—we even traveled yesterday to the Syrian border. It’s something you have to experience for yourself. It’s hard to describe. It motivates me to think about how we could re-create these kinds of experiences inside the Void. Again, it’s not just what you see and hear. When you travel to places, they have a specific smell to them, or the breeze, all those sorts of things you remember when you’re in a particular location. That’s what we want to re-create in the Void. People can visit a place and understand what’s going on there, places like Jerusalem or Syria, because we can take you to these locations and give you not just immersion, but hopefully education. Maybe that has an impact in the long run.