Dogs vs. Cats. Laurel vs. Yanny. Star Wars vs. Star Trek.
The controversy I really care about, however, is the one nerds across the internet argue about constantly: which universe is better — Star Wars or Star Trek? Also, the other two debates are easy: dogs are better and it’s Yanny. Don’t @ me.
Anyway, back to the debate that matters; this perennial dispute has found a new battleground in the world of Virtual Reality experiences, where two companies — The VOID and IMAX VR — have Star Wars and Star Trek–themed offerings respectively.
The two companies’ VR experiences are as different as a lightsaber is to a tricorder. The VOID has what they call a hyper-reality experience, where patrons can walk around the Star Wars universe and touch physical objects that line up with the VR shown through their goggles. IMAX VR offers a more gamified experience (one where, as I learned firsthand, you can lose by dying in a glorious explosion!) that focuses more on the virtual and has patrons goggled up in a single room. These two uses of VR give users an experience that lines up well with the respective worlds they are portraying.
Since it was created first, let’s start with Star Trek.
Star Trek and IMAX VR
In IMAX VR’s Star Trek: Bridge Crew offering, you and 1-3 of your friends are on the bridge of a Federation Starship. Before you begin, each person chooses a role: Captain (the one who orders people around), Helm (the one who flies the spaceship), Engineer (the one who beams up people) and Tactical (the one who blows things up). I’m a lover, not a fighter, so I took the role of Engineer while two others played the role of Captain and Tactical (you need at least two people to play, with the Captain taking on additional duties; in our case, our Captain also flew the ship since we didn’t have a Helm).
To start the game, each of us sat a specialized chair (it vibrates when you blow up!), put on VR goggles and picked up two game controller-like devices that simulate your hands in the game. Once my goggles powered on, I was smack dab on a Federation Starship bridge! The first thing I did was spin around in my chair and wave my “hands” around like a crazy person.
As promised, my virtual hands moved as my real ones did, though I was chagrined to see I was wearing a red shirt. Once I got tired of flailing my arms around, I took another look at the bridge; it, like much of Star Trek, was shiny and clean and bright. It even had a new-bridge smell, as we were in a “scent enhanced pod,” which apparently blasted that odor and others during the game. I saw my friend wave to me from his position at Tactical (how come he was wearing a gold shirt?!), and our Captain sat regally in the Captain’s chair, overseeing everything.
The primary focus of the virtual space, however, was the large window of the bridge. Our mission was to rescue stranded survivors, and my job as Engineer was to beam them up before anything bad happened. I don’t want to spoil the game, but something bad happened (one hint: Klingons!). Through that window, we saw a bunch of outer space pass by, including the pods where our survivors were and, later on, Klingon Warships, who decided to kill us.
As our ship took fire, we started yelling and scrambling to protect ourselves while also trying to fulfill our mission. Our chairs rumbled every time we took a hit, and my newly learned transponder skills faltered under the pressure. It was a group effort though, and we all contributed to failing our mission and spectacularly blowing up.
Even though we died, it was an amazing time; I was an active crew member of a Federation Starship! And even though I wasn’t as cool and calm under pressure as I would have liked, I felt inside that world, experiencing firsthand what I usually saw on the screen. I also had hope that I could re-enter that world (which I could do for another $15) and redeem myself by not dying.
If I decided I didn’t want to play Star Trek again, I could also pick from a slew of other games that IMAX VR offers, most of which are $10-15 per person. In addition to Star Trek, they have a game where you can be a tree (appropriately called Tree) and a $25 game called Deadwood Mansion, where players wear VR backpacks (similar to The VOID’s) and fight zombies. Some of their locations have a Star Wars game as well, although their Los Angeles location where I played did not.
Star Wars and The VOID
And then there’s The VOID and and ILMxLAB’s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire. At $32.50 at its Anaheim location, it’s more expensive than IMAX VR, but it is also a more immersive experience. Once you sign in and get a band with a QR code, you’re sent into a room where Cassian from Rogue One gives you your mission: you’re a group of spies disguised as stormtroopers about to land on an Empire base (on a ship with K-2SO, no less) to retrieve a secret item.
My two friends and I picked our stormtrooper colors, strapped on goggles and VR backpacks that reminded me of Ghostbuster proton packs (Ghostbusters was The VOID’s first experience, in fact) and headed into an enclosed space where we put down or VR goggles and entered the Star Wars universe.
I don’t want to give too many details of the 20 to 30-minute experience, but it honestly feels like you are in another world, a world where you can walk out of your ship and onto a lava planet (a planet where you feel the heat and smell the sulfur the lava is giving off) and then scuttle through a series of hallways and rooms that have physical switches and buttons and blasters for you to use and touch. It’s a gritty experience, one where you instinctively duck for cover whenever someone or something attacks you. You’re in the trenches, the other rebel spies in your group (and K-2SO) the only ones who can help you get off the planet in one piece.
And did I mention the blasters? You use the blasters to shoot at things, of course, which is exciting. And when you get hit by someone else’s blaster, your vest lets you know by vibrating, which is both exciting and stressful, even though you’re essentially immortal.
Unlike IMAX VR’s Star Trek offering, The VOID’s Star Wars experience wasn’t gamified. “It really is about taking people to these other worlds,” Curtis Hickman, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of The VOID explains. “That’s our priority more than what your score is. It’s about being in that reality more than it’s about you playing something.”
And I truly was taken to another world, a world where Darth Vader is very real and the Force is really with you. Last but definitely not least, there is also an Artoo-like droid who bids you goodbye. I’m a sucker for droids.
I want to go back. I want to go back 100 more times.
The VOID currently has two offerings: Star Wars and, at locations in New York and Toronto, a Ghostbusters experience. In that sense, it is more limited than IMAX VR’s selection, but I would argue the impact from that single experience makes up for their fewer options.
To Star Wars? Or To Star Trek?
Just like Star Wars and Star Trek, both offerings are worth exploring, and each reflects their respective franchises. On Star Trek: Bridge Crew, you have to actively and collaboratively problem solve to complete your mission and stay alive. It’s an intellectual as well as an emotional endeavor, and it’s one step removed from the direct action (the Klingons are firing at the ship, not at you personally). This more collaborative approach lines up well with the high-minded and structured culture on a Federation Starship.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is a messier experience, which excellently reflects the ragtag nature of the Rebels fighting an oppressive force. It also isn’t tech-heavy; you only have blasters to fight the enemy instead of a fancy-looking computer panel that fires photon torpedoes or beams people up. It’s also more desperate – the Rebellion is the underdog, fighting for its very existence. In Star Trek, you know the Federation will continue, even if your ship blows up.
But whatever your cup of tea, both VR experiences provide a more intimate and active way to enjoy these worlds, whether you’re looking to boldly go where no one has gone before or to have an adventure a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.