OCT 3, 2016 @ 10:14 AM
How Universal Orlando’s New Haunted House Is Pushing VR Tech To Its Limits
By: Seth Porges
In a nondescript soundstage building in the bowels of Universal Studios Florida, guests make their way, four at a time, through a space that has been designed to feel like an old and long-abandoned warehouse.
As far as Universal Studios in October goes, this is far from unique. In the weeks leading up to Halloween, the park is host to a large party called Halloween Horror Nights that has been running for 26 years. For the event, the numerous soundstages that ring the park, which was built to double as a production studio, are temporarily transformed into elaborate haunted houses.
And while this haunted house, known as The Repository, begins in a somewhat traditional manner; with guests interacting with live actors who want nothing more than to scare the bejeezus out of them, it is something very new: A fact that becomes clear about halfway through the experience, when guests are given a virtual reality headset that effectively teleports them to a ghost-filled dimension.
“In our story, the VR is called Dark Portal Transport, and it transports you from our world into the supernatural world,” says TJ Mannarino, senior director for art design for the entertainment division at Universal Orlando. “We use it take you to these distant worlds and lands where you come in contact with supernatural and paranormal entities.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time storytellers have used new technology as a tool to transport audiences to other worlds. In 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s entrance into the Land of Oz was marked by an abrupt switch to the then-new Technicolor technology; and 2010’s Tron: Legacy pulled a similar trick when it switched from 2D to 3D as its protagonist entered the video game world.
At Universal Florida’s Halloween Horror Nights event, The Repository haunted house uses virtual reality (photo: Universal Parks)
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Even though The Repository (a separately ticketed attraction that costs $50 on top of base admission) is a temporary installation that will likely be dismantled when the Halloween Horror Nights event goes into hibernation in November, it actually represents one of the most sophisticated uses of consumer-facing VR anywhere. Headset-wearing guests are given agency to freely roam through a large physical space. Their movements are captured by motion-capture cameras and then translated into a shared digital environment.
But unlike similar free-roaming VR executions, such as the Ghostbusters-themed one at Madame Tussaud’s New York location, visitors to The Repository can walk around without lugging a bulky backpack-based computer rig. (Though it should be noted that the Ghostbusters experience waves away this requirement by disguising the computer as a “proton pack”.) At The Repository, a lighter backpack-free rig reduces the physical mass that visitors have to carry, and speeds up the process of gearing-up guests—an important consideration since the VR experience is part of a larger warehouse walkthrough, and could easily turn into a capacity-straining bottleneck.
“We wirelessly transmit our video and audio components to the various capture stages from a tech booth that we call the Catwalk,” Mannarino says. “The only thing that is maintained inside of the stages are the motion-capture cameras and a bunch of 4D effects. We have fans, heaters, subwoofers, so when you see lightning hit within the VR world, we reinforce it with subwoofers that shake the building.”
Another key technical element of The Repository is the way it combines multiple physical spaces into a single, shared virtual world. The four-person groups are split into groups of two and placed in identical motion-capture stages. The motion-capture cameras and nearby computers combine the footage into a shared virtual space that is populated by avatar representations of people in both rooms, creating the illusion of proximity for visitors who are not physically near.
One of the great promises of VR is this ability to bring physically disparate people together, and create a sense of closeness. In a few years, it may be possible to put on a VR rig and teleport to the same virtual space as a far-off friend or family member in a way that is convincing enough to trick our nervous system into feeling as if we are really there. The technology isn’t quite there yet, but The Repository is a remarkable step forward in showing us what this brave new world will look like. On a more immediate level, it’s also a whole lot of fun for visitors, and gives Universal’s legendary haunted house makers (remember: they’ve been doing this for 26 years) the opportunity to experiment with something totally new.
“The biggest question we get from people who come to our event multiple year is: ‘Well, you did a great job last year, so what do you do next year to top it?’” Mannarino says. “For us it’s always about how do we elevate the experience? How do we up the ante? Any time we can change the environment or how they experience the environment from something people have seen before, it’s always exciting for us.”