Somehow I managed to miss this amazing illusion that aired on America’s Got Talent last month. The Escape is a mind-bending bit of visual trickery that uses high tech holograms and old fashioned rope to tell a story about an unlucky player trying to escape a mad virtual reality game.
The company has produced similarly impressive bits of what I’m going to dub virtual virtual reality for several other events, including the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest.
So the video above likely requires some explanation for those of you whose nerdery is limited solely to the magical arts. E3, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, is a yearly videogame conference. The main attraction is essentially a series of giant stage presentations in which overworked game creators display legitimate marvels of technology that took hundreds of thousands of collective hours of painstaking work to make, in a foolhardy bid to please a swarm of miserable gremlins on Twitter who will pounce upon any perceived flaw in the presentation as evidence that the product is irredeemable trash garbage that must be hurled into the ocean. As both a Twitter and pedantry enthusiast, it’s my favorite event of the year. Naturally, I think all of this year’s games look terrible.
But there was an interesting presentation in which Penn Jillette joined Gearbox CEO, Randy Pitchford, (who for disclosure purposes I should mention is the owner of GeniiOnline) to perform a trick or two and talk about their upcoming collaborative project, Penn & Teller VR. While other developers might be trying to push the virtual reality medium forwards with immersive, narrative-driven experiences that speak to the audience on a personal level, Pitchford and Jillette are engaged in a far more noble pursuit: using the technology to scare the crap out of people. Indeed, it seems like Penn & Teller VR: Frankly Unfair, Unkind, Unnecessary & Underhanded, to use its full title, is basically a collection of mini-games designed to lull your victim into a false sense of security before you dump spiders on them or drop them off a (virtual) building.
This isn’t the first time Gearbox has collaborated with Penn & Teller on a VR project. Back in 2017, they released a virtual reality remake of Jillette’s magnum opus, Desert Bus.
Even if videogames aren’t your thing, the pair still have time to pontificate on the nature of magic and how to translate that into interactive entertainment, which is a genuinely interesting topic. Plus, watching Pitchford and Jillette bounce off each other is always fun.
In the 21st century, magicians (like Simon Pierro and his iPad tricks) are often looking to technology to find new ways to amaze people with their magic. At tech conference/film & music festival SXSW, engineers are looking to magic to improve their own products, as showcased by an upcoming presentation by Laura Mingail entitled “Using Magician’s Tricks to Develop VR AR Content.”
Mingail is the Senior Director of Marketing and Business Development for Secret Location, an Emmy award-winning company building virtual and augmented reality experiences based on movies, video games, and even concerts. She’s also the granddaughter of Henry Gordon, a magician, skeptic, and recipient of the Order of Merlin in 2001. In her upcoming presentation, she will combine her roots in the magic world with her expertise in technological storytelling in a presentation that will reveal, according to the description, “how to use magicians’ tricks when storytelling in VR/AR, based on secret magic notes, and [her] experience in the VR/AR industry.” Magician Scott Wells will also be on hand to perform magic for the presentation, showcasing traditional uses for magic.
Registered SXSW goers will be able to attend the talk on Tuesday, March 13 at 5pm in the JW Marriott Salon 1-2. Registration for SXSW is still open, and you can find out more details here.
Correction: This article incorrectly referred to this event as a “panel”; it is actually a presentation specially crafted by Mingail to show how magic can be incorporated into VR and AR technology. We have updated the piece to reflect the distinction.
Most video games entice players with exciting stories, mind-bending puzzles, or intense combat. Not so with Desert Bus, possibly the most boring game of all time, where all you do is drive a bus with twitchy steering at a plodding 45 miles per hour across the desert in real time. No explosions. No aliens or monsters. And no pauses for bathroom breaks. Now you can experience all that glory in virtual reality.
Desert Bus began as a minigame in Penn & Teller’s Smoke & Mirrors, a video game collection for Sega CD that wound up never being released, and grew into something of a subcultural touchstone. In fact, there’s now a charity event where stalwart players sit through the entire thing and people donate while watching their suffering.
If this sounds like your idea of fun, there is now a listing for a VR edition on video game platform Steam for PC. It can be played on the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets. It also has partial support for motion controllers and gamepads, or you can play the plain ol’ digital game if you don’t own any VR tech. This version adds multiplayer into the mix, and players can also honk the bus’ horn or tune into the radio for programming featuring Penn Jillette himself. Dinosaur Games developed Desert Bus VR, and the game is being published by Gearbox Software. It’s out now and it’s free, so you can see for yourself what all the fuss (or lack thereof) is about.
Disclaimer: Randy Pitchford is CEO and President of Gearbox Software and owner of GeniiOnline.
Virtual reality – where you strap on a headset and maybe a vest or some gloves – at first doesn’t seem like it has much in common with magic, but as Curtis Hickman of The Void explains, they both rely on misdirection. In a presentation at the Augmented World Expo, Hickman, who is himself a magician, described how effective virtual reality depends on tricking participants into believing in not just the fantastic, but more importantly the mundane.
To get the audience to buy into a magic trick, you must first establish certain ground rules of truth. This is a regular coin, you have selected a card of your own free will, this is a real bowling ball. The hurdle for convincing someone to believe a virtual reality experience is similar, and misdirection is key to selling the lie. Hickman’s example of creating an endless hallway by letting the player walk in circles is a perfect illustration of how, as he says, “virtual reality is the result of misdirection.”
It’s a fascinating exploration of how willing our brains are to fill in the gaps of not only what’s not really there, but what’s not even possible.