One of my oldest friends in the video game industry is David Warhol, who I first met nearly thirty years ago when I hired his company, Realtime Associates, to develop a video game based on the film Dick Tracy when I worked at Disney Computer Software. For as long as I can remember, David has had a keen interest in interactive storytelling and was always seeking to use technology to combine the best of what film and video games have to offer into a unique entertainment experience. Well, today he showed me his ultimate achievement, and despite having recently experienced high-quality mixed reality attractions at The Void and Two Bit Circus, I was blown away by the 360 degree, 3D, fully interactive cinematic experience he demonstrated to me.
As we entered his TheatriX facilities in Long Beach, California, he told me I was about to enter the world’s largest (and only) retroreflective theater. The venue was covered in retroreflective sheeting, a flexible material primarily used to increase the nighttime conspicuity of traffic signs, high-visibility clothing, and other items so they are safely and effectively visible in the light of an approaching driver’s headlamps. Here, however, the reflected light would be from two tiny projectors built into the headset worn by TheatriX participants.
In the other mixed reality attractions I’ve experienced, I had to spend several minutes gearing up with a cumbersome headset for providing virtual audiovisuals and a heavy backpack for carrying a portable computer. Yet the TheatriX visor that David handed to me was lightweight and took me about as long to equip as a pair of sunglasses. It was tethered to the theater’s computer, but David explained that the theater would soon be using tetherless belt clip systems.
As I looked through the visor, I found myself transported into a primeval world. A fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex towered over my head as giant dragonflies buzzed about. Now, I have been transported to fantastic worlds and surrounded by huge monsters before in my recent mixed reality experiences, but the difference here is that my fellow participants were not represented by computer-generated avatars — I could actually see the people in my group , thanks to the environment being created not by virtual reality or even augmented reality, but what is essentially a real-time 3D green screen.
The photo I took through the visor using my iPhone camera does not do justice to the quality of the immersion, but trust me when I say that the results are impressive. My issue with VR experiences has always been my concern with inadvertently crashing into furniture or other people, which is why VR location-based attractions require an employee to always be present to prevent and respond to accidents. Also, by being able to see real people instead of avatars, it made the experience seem less isolated and more social.
The technology behind this based on the thousands of tiny glass beads that are bonded to the retroreflective material. Instead of simply scattering light, as normal materias do, the retroreflective materials turn the light from the visor projectors around and send a large portion of it back in the same direction it came from, and into the visor wearer’s eyes. While the other participants are beaming images onto the retroreflective sheets at the same time as you, there is little visual spillover from their projections because their reflected images are too dim for you to notice. Your reflective image is much brighter to you (and will be even more so, when glasses coming off the line next month use an optic trick to return 100% of the projected light to your eyes). Currently, the reflected image does not extend to your full peripheral vision, but David tells me that enlarging the field of view that is simply a matter of grinding the visor’s lenses differently.
The next environment that David transported me into was a space station, and for this experience, he handed me a controller that allowed me to pick up objects and move through the scene. The objects looked convincingly three-dimensional when zoomed in through the stereoscopic visors, and I could see how the motion capabilities would be really cool for controlling a boat or other vehicle that was carrying everyone.
I asked David what he ultimately wanted to do with this technology. He explained that he saw TheatriX deployed as venues of two or more 26-foot dome theaters. Although the technology could support an unlimited number of participants, the more participants there are, the less interactivity each would have. So, he proscribes a maximum audience size of 15, with each participant equipped with a 3D visor and controller allowing them to participate in interactive stories, in which the entire audience moves around the theater, interacting with each other and the digital characters and world.
Rather than basing the experience on first-person shooters like most current virtual reality attractions do, David sees Escape Rooms as being a closer cousin to what he wants to achieve. Audience members would be able collaborate with one another, solving problems, dividing up tasks, and working together, changing to profoundly affecting the story and outcome. And with the lightweight equipment and relatively low operating costs that TheatriX allows, David sees it possible to create highly repeatable, mixed reality experiences ranging from 10 to 90 minutes.
It’s a grand vision, and based on what I experienced today, a very achievable one. I can’t wait to try it when it is fully employed — where can I buy a ticket?
Of the sixty or so videogames I have developed, perhaps my favorite was the Heroes of Might & Magic series, thanks in large part to how well we development leads got along with each other. While we worked very hard, we also took the time to have fun with each other. For example, after I had returned from a week’s vacation with my family, my lead designer, Greg Fulton, had told me that they had added a new character to the Armageddon’s Blade expansion in my absence, and he wanted me to review and approve it.
The character the had named the character they added “Sir Mullich”, and the artwork was based on a photograph of me dressed in a Renaissance Fair costume that I had put on a few months earlier for a photograph used as reference for the town leaders in Might & Magic VI, a role-playing game set in the same fictional universe developed by our sister team at New World Computing. However, it was the character’s description that really got to me: Generally stoic, Sir Mullich is prone to spasmodic fits of uncoordinated excitement believed to intimidate his troops into working faster. As I read it, the rest of the team hovered about, waiting to see how I would react.
Fortunately for everyone, I laughed at their joke about my leadership skills (or lack thereof), but told them that they could keep the character (and its description) in the game. Little did I realize how long that character would live on. Not only did Sir Mullich appear in all of the Heroes of Might & Magic games that our team launched from 1999 to 2002, but the character lived on in the Heroes games that Ubisoft continued to develop after buying the franchise from our parent company, The 3DO Company.
“Sir Mullich” also lives on in the many Heroes sites that the series’ fans publish, and I was amazed that when I entered the name into Google for this article, it received 10,600 results. Even more unsettling, I occasionally receive fan mail from all around the world, sometimes with the fans posing with a picture of me. I may not be famous in America, but apparently I have a large enough following in Eastern Europe for my photo to have been hung up in a gamer’s lounge in Poland or there to be Russian fan art of Sir Mullich in DeviantArt.
What most tickles me is the artwork that is produced for this character, which seems to make Sir Mullich less spasmodic and more heroic with each iteration. Just this morning, my contact at Ubisoft, Julien Pirou sent me some fantastic artwork of Sir Mullich created for Might & Magic Era of Chaos, a mobile game released in China. It’s a far more heroic depiction of me than anyone in real life would think, and having created a game that has a worldwide appeal two decades later actually makes me feel more humbled than heroic.
An even stranger experience for me was meeting the real-life incarnation of a video game I had worked on. The protagonist of Dark Seed II, a horror-themed adventure game I had produced for game publisher Cyberdreams based on the artwork of H.R. Giger, was named Mike Dawson. This character was the same as the hero of the first game in the series, whose name and likeness was based on the original game’s programmer.
When I joined Cyberdreams in 1993, Mike Dawson had already left the company, but I did get to meet him twenty years when I joined The Los Angeles Film School, where he taught Game Programming courses. Far from being the tormented and tortured soul from the Dark Seed series, Mike is an impressively normal guy (albeit with a sly sense of humor), but one who is far more heroic than his video-game counterpart for being an absolutely outstanding teacher who just celebrated ten years at The Los Angeles Film School, where he consistently receives the highest praise from his programming students.
So, what’s it like to be someone who is far less heroic than his video game counterpart but having known someone who is actually far more than his? I’m good with that. I originally got into game development to use computers as a storytelling tool, and so I’m thrilled to entertain people with fictional stories that they continue with their own fan art and fan fiction. But even more importantly, it’s given me many opportunities to meet people like Mike Dawson who inspire me with their real-life stories.