At first, you still feel connected to the real world. The weight of the headset and harness you’re wearing bind you to reality. You see stormtroopers in front of you, but your brain understands it’s just your friends rendered in a digital environment. Then a door opens and everything changes.
A landscape of molten red lava lies before you, framed by a horizon of smoke and blackened rock. An unexpected assault begins on your other senses: dry, hot air blows against your skin—you can almost taste the smoke and dust. Your feet become unsteady as the floor rumbles and the landscape blurs as you hurtle across the lava field on a floating mechanical skiff. Look behind, and the doorway you came through is lost in the lava flows, and with it goes your connection to reality.
You feel like you’re on the planet Mustafar from Star Wars. But you’re really inside The VOID, a futuristic experience that goes beyond virtual reality and into the realm of fully immersive settings and stories. At one of nine locations around the world that play Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, a special collaboration between the VOID and Disney, you can become one of the core characters in your own science fiction adventure.
VR has been around for a long time now—pilots starting using it in the 1970s to train. Over the last 10 years, it has increasingly been adapted to mobile devices, gaming, and other consumer applications. But The VOID isn’t simply VR. With that one scene, participants are launched into a hyper-realistic Star Wars experience that touches on all five senses and has a kickass story to boot.
A whole new world
The VOID started inside a Utah-based theme park project called Evermore Park that sought to combine story and unique settings to create unforgettable experiences. But its founders quickly realized that with VR technology, they could create something more.
“We started talking about virtual reality, how we could use modern technology to create deeply immersive experiences,” said Curtis Hickman, a co-founder and chief creative officer of the VOID. “But it became clear early on that the VOID was much bigger. Instead of a theme park, you can fit an entire world into one of our centers.”
In order to create that world, they realized that the VOID would have to go far beyond purely VR. Hickman’s background was in designing magic shows for illusionists like Chris Angel and David Copperfield. The challenge would be to combine those types of effects with the technology in new ways. The VOID would have to do more than play eye candy to take the audience on a truly unforgettable ride.
“People have an idea of what VR was always supposed to be,” Hickman said. “Like the movie The Matrix: It was deeply immersive. But VR has constantly fallen short of that mark. And what we’ve tried to do with the VOID is meet those expectations. You don’t just see it, you can reach out and touch it. The VOID is the perfect combination of visual effects and physical, magical ideas that create wonder and illusion.”
The VOID was spun off as a separate company in 2014 and in 2016, the company launched its first project, a Ghostbusters-based experience at Madame Tussaud’s in Times Square, New York City. After that concept proved successful, they decided to take on a grander project: The biggest pop culture phenomenon ever.
A Star Wars story
In late 2016, THE VOID was accepted into the 2017 class of the Disney Accelerator Program. They would gain access to Disney’s development expertise and financial resources while getting a chance to leverage the stories and characters that Disney has built an empire on. Companies in the program are tasked with finding a creative way to use Disney’s existing IP.
There was only one story that captured the attention of the entire VOID team: Star Wars. It was cool and futuristic, and they believed it would resonate well with their intended audience. Its fantastical worlds just seemed like the perfect fit for virtual reality. The fact that Disney had invested in producing new content for Star Wars was another bonus. To Hickman, it was “a natural fit.”
Disney also had a group, named ILM xLAB, that was looking to push the boundaries of storytelling. ILM xLAB is a collaboration between LucasFilm for stories, ILM for technology, and Skywalker Sound for audio. Its goal is to combine those elements together to create an immersive entertainment environment. In The VOID, ILM xLAB had found the perfect partners.
“We saw the potential immediately,” said Ian Bowie, ILM xLAB’s lead experience designer for Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire. “We wanted a story that fit in The VOID and not any other platform.”
Over the years, Star Wars has become an international phenomenon, from movies to books to theme park rides. But never before had fans had the opportunity to actually play a role within the franchise. ILM xLAB wanted to deliver that opportunity to the franchise’s fans. According to Bowie, their guiding principle was: “‘What would it be like to be the main character in a Star Wars movie?'”
Building a spaceship
The first meeting between The VOID and ILM xLAB turned into a full-on engineering jam session. The VOID team was eager to show what it had learned from building the Ghostbusters experience.“We cleared out a room,” Bowie said. “We taped on the ground what we would have to do by walking, looking, pointing in 3D space, and touching. Reaching out and touching things is magical. We got really physical with the design in a way I haven’t done in any other project.”
From the beginning, both teams also realized that to create the best experience, the storytelling had shine—this couldn’t just be a tech demonstration. The virtual and physical effects had to tie into the plot and allow the participants to make the virtual world their own. The designers worked closely with the Lucasfilm story group to make the experience less about a tech showpiece and focus it on the audience. That’s how Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was born.
“We wanted a traditional story,” Bowie said. “With a climax and rising tension. And for you to feel not just guided, but let go to discover things on your own and as a team.”
To that end, the first room in Secrets of the Empire was turned into a portal of sorts between worlds. It’s nondescript, like any other room in an Imperial building, but it does have one basic, yet key, feature: a bench.
When you enter the room, K-2SO, an Imperial droid featured in the film Rogue One, appears and gives a simple command: sit. That sounds simple, but remember, you’re fully outfitted in VR gear. Everything you see is through the headset—is the bench even there? But it’s all a part of how players are led into the experience.
“Sitting on that bench and putting your full weight on it, we’re trying to work your subconscious to make you believe what you’re experiencing is reality,” Bowie explained. “It’s a whole new level of immersion, and everyone comes in a bit skeptical. You have to bring people to the point where they want it to be real. And you have to give them opportunities to prove to themselves that it is real so they can get lost in it in a way they haven’t before.”
Right when the audience starts to feel comfortable within the virtual world, that’s when they hit you with the skiff scene.
The opening moment of flying across lava was actually one of the hardest for the design team to pull off. They knew they had only one shot to fully impress their audience. And VR has been known to induce motion sickness even when users are in their own living rooms. Throw in high-speed fans and rumbling floors? Things could get a little too intense.
At first, there was a lot of hesitancy on the part of the designers over whether the skiff scene would work. They had to tackle it on multiple fronts: rumbling the floor to give the sense of movement and fans blowing hot air to provide some resistance. They had to make sure to keep a constant horizon to lower the sense of motion sickness and allow their audience to be awed.
The final product is one of the most impressive moments in the entire experience, even though it happens at the very beginning. It’s a fantastic first impression and its effect lingers over the entire duration of the simulation.
“We were really proud of having [the skiff scene] rate so high whenever we do feedback,” Bowie said. “Because it’s a very important moment storywise, where you step into the Star Wars universe of your own volition.”
But the best part is a bit further in. Secrets of the Empirestarts as a stealth mission. K-2 guides the participants as they infiltrate Darth Vader’s Mustafar base. But as any fan knows, stealth is not a reliable tactic in Star Wars. In the middle of the simulation, after the participants get off the skiff, they are offered stormtrooper blasters as a prop.
The blasters feel real and look great in the headsets, which by this point, you barely even remember you’re wearing. And based on ILM xLab’s testing, somebody in the group almost always pulls the trigger. That’s when everything goes haywire: Imperial alarms sound, lights flash everywhere, and enemy stormtroopers pour into the hallway. It’s time to blast your way out.
“The big ‘aha!’ moment for me, the one I’m most proud of, is the blaster,” Bowie said. “When you fire that blaster, you have changed the context of your adventure. And it’s something you can own. You decided to go on this mission, you picked up the blaster, you pulled the trigger, and you have to fight your way out. We wanted you to be the main characters, to talk and reason with each other and to decide what to do.”
K-2 led you to that point, but when the blaster bolts start flying, you’re suddenly in control.
Hitting the deck
Taking charge of the situation and making decisions is a key aspect to the experience. Users are asked to problem solve and work in teams, just like in the movies. It’s a desired effect, one that the designers worked carefully to create.
“We removed a lot of dialogue so that people could talk to each other,” Bowie said. “This ended up being important to you feeling like you’re actually there. We had to get guests comfortable with talking and not afraid they would interrupt a character.”
In one scene, a guest has to open a switch by inputting a code while the others hold off waves of stormtroopers. Firing the blasters gives participants a unique sense of ownership over what they’re doing. Even the misses are fun—after all, stormtroopers are famously inaccurate. A blaster that’s a bit unreliable adds to the Star Wars feel. It all makes getting lost in the experience so much easier so that when the switch appears, you instinctively grasp for it.
Overall, the VOID is an experience where guests decide how they want to participate and explore. You can fight head-on or dive behind cover. You don’t have to reach out and touch K-2, but if you do, you’ll find a physical model of the droid is there. The level of detail is incredible.
But giving guests agency isn’t without challenges. The environment has to be flexible enough to satisfy people’s curiosity.
“In physical VR, people respond very viscerally in amazing ways,” Bowie said. “We’ve had people full-on hit the ground, like Seal Team Six. [You have to] accommodate as much of that as possible, because people are very unpredictable, in the best ways. They get so involved, unlike any other platform, and you want to make sure they have the opportunity.”
Exploring the galaxy
Secrets of the Empire is a triumphant entry into the new world of immersive experiences. It’s exciting, engaging, totally engrossing, and redefines what we should expect from the entire VR genre. And it’s accessible enough that ordinary people can participate in it. But at the same time, it’s just a glimpse of what’s to come.
Bowie and Hickman agree that the future of these hyper-realistic experiences hinges on three things: Strong stories, the ability to go beyond visual effects, and the unknown. Both parties were enthused about their tactile technology and how that added to the visual wonder. To touch and feel the impossible, like a Star Wars character, and not just see it. And both want longer, more involved experience with even more decision trees and story-altering moments.
Both parties are working to advance technology with more stories and experiences. After the success of Secrets, ILM xLAB’s launched a VR film collaboration with decorated director Alejandro Iñárritu. Named Carne y Arena, it’s expanding to more and more cities and has already won an Oscar, the first for a VR film.
The VOID expanded to nine new locations—Atlanta; Austin, Dallas, Hollywood, Minneapolis; New York, Philadelphia, Santa Monica, and Washington, D.C.—in 2018. It also recently released the first experience based on its own story. Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment is a haunted historical fantasy experience based on the 1893 World’s Fair.
Those are encouraging developments, but the potential of these experiences is much greater. As technology improves, Hickman believes our collective imagination for what’s possible will expand. I brought up Ready Player One, the Steven Spielberg film that sought to imagine a world engrossed in VR.
“Ready Player One has some fun ideas, but we’re definitely limited for now for what’s possible,” he said. “The movie plays off current technology but doesn’t paint too many new ideas because those ideas haven’t been invented yet. VR, if it stays the course and society adopts it, could see a future that goes beyond that film.”As incredible as Secrets of the Empire is, it just scratches the surface of what VR, haptics, and other technologies can combine to create. Conceived fully, this is a new form of entertainment altogether, not just a riff on an existing genre. Hickman and Bowie are inventing the future one experience at a time, and it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll end up. They’re along for the ride as both creators and participants into an undiscovered realm of immersive experiences.