Standing on a ledge over a lava field on the planet Mustafar with two fellow rebels impersonating Stormtroopers by my side, I’m frantically firing my blaster at actual Stormtroopers in front of and above me. Desperate to avoid getting shot, I’m dodging incoming fire–literally moving my body out of the way.
One by one, my comrades-in-arms and I pick off our enemies, all of whom have been trying to keep us from our objective: Recovering intelligence essential to the rebellion’s continued existence, thought to be inside a secret chamber identified by rebel spies. Accompanied and assisted by the droid K-2S0, we’ve navigated several chambers, taken an elevator, fought off giant lava monsters, and found ourselves at the edge of chaos. We’re surviving.
Welcome to Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, from The Void and ILMxLab, the arm of Disney-owned Lucasfilm that’s focused on building immersive experiences. It’s the first virtual reality experience built to bring users into George Lucas’s rich universe and let them literally move around in it and complete a mission. This could be the best thing yet for location-based VR.
Opening on December 16 at Disney Springs outside Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and at a Westfield mall in London, and on January 5 in Downtown Disney outside Disneyland in Anaheim, California, the experience is meant to immerse users in the world of Star Wars in a way that’s never been possible before. Tickets cost $30, and the total experience lasts about 15 minutes, not including the time it takes to get a mission briefing, gear up, and get started.
“We’re always trying to tell the right story for the right platform,” says Vicki Dobbs Beck, ILMxLab’s executive in charge. It’s an “opportunity to step into the world of Star Wars. You feel it and experience it through your senses–there’s heat and smell–and a lot of things that you couldn’t do in any other way.”
Virtual reality as a whole is expected to be a $38 billion industry by 2026, but consumer VR has gotten off to a slow start since the first hardware hit store shelves in 2015. Now, as people wait and see when, or if, the technology can become truly mainstream, there’s a lot of hope that location-based VR like that created by The Void can generate significant interest and kick-start the larger industry.
Where owners of consumer systems like the high-end Oculus Rift or Samsung’s mobile Gear VR have limited physical movement, if any at all, systems like The Void’s allow for sprawling experiences inside warehouse-like spaces that give users a sense of walking around and interacting with physical objects like guns, doors, elevators, and more.
And while it’s true that high-end consumer VR systems like the Rift or HTC Vive allow for moving around in physical space–and even allow for social play–that’s limited to a fairly minor amount of space in a single room, and you’re physically tethered by wires to a computer the whole time. By comparison, location-based VR allows untethered movement around several rooms, and open up experience design that takes advantage of that kind of movement, as well as tactile cues that can make someone feel like they’re in an elevator, a space skiff, or crossing a bridge.
That’s why some are holding out hope that location-based VR, from The Void, Nomadic, Zero Latency, and others, can bring new life to moribund shopping malls, movie theaters, and other public spaces.
For the folks at The Void and ILMxLab, though, the main concern was crafting an experience worthy of the Star Wars name.
Although Secrets of the Empire is being launched the day after the latest film in the official Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi, they aren’t tied to each other, except in the sense that both are Star Wars projects–and the events of Secrets of the Empire is said to place it chronologically between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the original film, otherwise known as Episode IV: A New Hope.
But it’s obvious The Void is hoping to piggyback on publicity surrounding the film.
“All the stories are in the Star Wars universe,” says Diana Williams, the story group executive and content strategist at ILMxLab. “They’re connected in a way, whether it’s obvious or not . . . They’re connected, but it also feels like it’s its own story as well.”
Big Star Wars fans will no doubt get a kick out of being able to play the role of a rebel infiltrating enemy territory, getting to live inside a virtual Stormtrooper uniform, firing a blaster, and more, all in a physical, yet virtual space. The question is whether there’s enough there to warrant the $30 cost.
When I went through The Void’s Ghostbusters experience in New York City last year, I came away underwhelmed and feeling like it wasn’t worth the cost of a ticket. The original Ghostbusters film was fun, but you can’t say it ever generated much real passion among its fans. So The Void version felt too short, a little too gritty, and like it didn’t take full advantage of the medium.
With Secrets of the Empire, I still worry that it’s too short, but I came away feeling much more enthusiastic about the experience. I’m sure a big part of that was because it’s the Star Wars universe, but I also felt like it was a bit more polished. Perhaps it also had something to do with the fact that the gear I donned for Ghostbusters felt old and beat up.
But the folks at The Void and ILMxLab actually think there’s so much material in Secrets of the Empire that people will not only come with friends and family, but will return multiple times both to share it with others and to see what they missed the previous time.
“They come out and say, ‘Oh, man, when Darth Vader came out, [my friend] dropped to the ground,” says Curtis Hickman, The Void’s chief creative officer. “Some people find things in the experience that other people don’t. So you can discover new things” each time.
Adds The Void’s CEO, Cliff Plumer, because the experience allows different groups of people to experience Secrets of the Empire in their own ways–“creating their own story within the platform”–there’s an opportunity for different experiences each time through.
The Void is inherently a social experience, allowing up to four people to go through at a time. And in many cases, that means friends and family will go through together. But even when someone ends up buying a ticket by themselves, it’s quite easy for those solo users to integrate with others.
But once in a while, says Hickman, someone will end up going through entirely on their own. And that’s okay. “We’ve designed for that,” he says. You “can have a great experience. The system makes adjustments for that.”
That’s in part because the experience is always moving forward, never backward, so it’s impossible to get trapped. Virtual characters also help guide you through.
The Void is still in its earliest days, with Ghostbusters as its only previous experience. Now, with Secrets of the Empire launching in three locations over the next two months, one wonders how the company and ILMxLab will evaluate whether the project is a success.
Plumer says, advanced ticket sales have demonstrated that the demand is there, and he seems confident that there will soon be additional locations.
From Williams’s perspective, the key is evaluating whether fans seem excited. It remains to be seen how people will react once Secrets of the Empire opens.