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With Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, virtual reality is finally ready for prime-time

With Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, virtual reality is finally ready for prime-time


The Void and ILMxLAB takes guests to a galaxy far, far away

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Last week, I visited the lava planet Mustafar, infiltrated an Imperial base as a stormtrooper, battled alongside the cantankerous droid K-2SO, and collected data on a piece of secret Imperial cargo that could have far-reaching ramifications for the fate of the galaxy. And I did it all without ever leaving a tiny warehouse in Glendale, California.

What I experienced was Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, the much-anticipated collaboration between virtual reality park designers The Void and ILMxLAB, the immersive entertainment wing of Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic. From the moment the companies announced they were working together on a Star Wars-based VR adventure, with locations opening in both California and Florida, expectations have been high. In projects like Ghostbusters: Dimension, The Void has demonstrated that its combination of free-roaming VR and physical mazes offer a unique form of entertainment, while xLAB has been breaking new emotional and narrative ground with pieces like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s museum installation Carne y Arena. And then there’s that whole Star Wars element — with Secrets of the Empire opening just as fans hit peak hype for Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi.

Having gone through a prototype version of the experience in that Glendale warehouse, it’s clear that this experience does more than just deliver on those lofty expectations. For mainstream audiences, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire may be the first time virtual reality actually delivers on the Holodeck-esque potential it’s been promising all along.

Photo: The Void / ILMxLAB

Secrets of the Empire starts with a briefing. Groups of up to four guests are shown a video from Rogue One’s Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). There’s a piece of Imperial cargo that’s been brought to the planet Mustafar, he says, and while he was originally going to retrieve it, he’s now under attack. It’s up to the group of guests to go undercover as stormtroopers and get the job done. From there, audience members suit up with a custom head-mounted display, lightweight backpack computer, and a haptic vest, and step into an adjoining room. Pull down the headset, and the real world melts away: where other participants were a moment ago, stormtroopers now stand.

It legitimately feels like starring in a ‘Star Wars’ TV show of your own

The storyline is exactly what any Star Wars fan would hope for: the group of participants infiltrate the base, get into some skirmishes, and after a couple of lucky escapes (and a big surprise), make their way out having more or less accomplished the mission. But what The Void does well is create the illusion of truly being in a virtual world by pairing physical sets, props, and sensations with the VR visuals. Secrets of the Empire uses that combination to ground the experience right from the beginning. As I stepped into a transport, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, also reprising his role) suggested I sit down on the ship’s bench — and sure enough, there was a physical bench waiting for me when I did. When I waved my hands in front of my face, there they were, clad in the white-and-black gloves of a stormtrooper. Moments later, when I stood on a skiff approaching the Imperial facility, I felt the heat from the lava below, while the smoky smell of Mustafar’s atmosphere filled my nostrils. Later, when engaged in a firefight with stormtroopers, I felt a sharp haptic buzz whenever I caught a stray blaster bolt — not painful, but not exactly pleasant, either.

There’s a tremendous amount of fun just in the pure discovery of the experience: the realization that I could chatter along with the people I was playing with (“I have a bad feeling about this”), or that there was a Han Solo-esque workaround to a puzzle that I couldn’t crack. But breaking it down into those kind of singular moments seems reductive, because more than anything else, Secrets of the Empire legitimately feels like starring in a Star Wars movie or TV show of your very own. Part of that is the length. From the briefing to the moment you remove the gear at the end, the experience runs roughly 30 minutes, so there’s some heft to it. Another component is the tactile reality that The Void creates, paired with the sense of independence that comes from being able to walk around a virtual location without any perceived restrictions or limitations. The Void uses design sleight of hand and misdirection to guide guests through relatively small physical spaces that feel massive and epic in the virtual world. It’s an illusion, but an incredibly effective one that creates a compelling sense of autonomy and agency.

The floor plan of the Anaheim location reveals the maze that is transformed while in VR.
The floor plan of the Anaheim location reveals the maze that is transformed while in VR.
Photo: The Void / ILMxLAB

But even that can only get you so far. Star Wars is a universe that’s ultimately defined by that kinds of stories it tells. And whether I was quickly ducking into a blasted-open passageway, furiously trading blaster fire with a group of stormtroopers above me, or facing what seemed like certain doom at the climax of the piece, Secrets of the Empire nailed the feeling of being inside the universe completely.

“The important thing was, how can I bring a real person into the Star Wars universe and have them be a part of the story, but also be able to make their own kind of story within ours,” Lucasfilm Story Group executive and xLAB content strategist Diana Williams tells me. The events of Secrets of the Empire are canon in the larger universe, and while the narrative is fixed, it’s the nature of the medium that every individual who goes through will have their own unique experience based on what they do, how they react, and who they go in with. It creates a unique opportunity for replayability — even at $29.95 per ticket — with guests able to experience different elements or even take on different duties in certain scenes depending on how aggressively they choose to play.

The Void will open a traveling pop-up location in London

Initially, Secrets of the Empire will open in two standalone locations. The first will be at Disney Springs at Walt Disney World starting on December 16th, which will be capable of serving around a thousand guests per day across two different stages. A single-stage location will then open at the Disneyland-adjacent Downtown Disney complex in California on January 5th. But The Void will also be opening a two-stage pop-up at the Westfield mall in London for a 12-week run on December 16th, with the location later moving to a different Westfield for subsequent 12-week runs. That’s aside from future locations that The Void CEO Cliff Plumer says are also on the way.

“We'll be announcing more locations that are opening up, but I always say, I like to think of us almost like a Cirque de Soleil,” he says. “There's those flagship locations, and then we have traveling shows.”

The Void currently has locations in Toronto, Utah, and New York, and briefly opened a center in Dubai. But it’s easy to see how the high-profile nature of the Star Wars partnership, together with the pop-up strategy, will expose more people than ever to its unique flavor of virtual reality. It’s coming at a crucial time. The hype wave from the launch of at-home VR dissipated some time ago, and the industry focus has increasingly turned toward location-based solutions like the IMAX VR arcades that the company is currently piloting at movie theaters. But even those are often just souped-up versions of experiences that are already available to VR users at home. The Void, on the other hand, is poised to deliver on the kind of active, full-bodied experience that has largely been the ideal of VR, even if it’s rarely been reached.

Photo: The Void / ILMxLAB

That’s not to say Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is flawless, by any means. I found the hand tracking to be inconsistent, with my virtual hands appearing smoothly at some moments, while remaining stubbornly nonexistent at others. In a scene that required me to hit a number of buttons in sequence in order to escape a room, the tracking between the physical and the digital seemed so misaligned that I was unable to solve the puzzle altogether. And while the visuals are quite good, we are simply not in the realm of photorealism yet.

The first step toward making VR and mixed reality legitimate extensions of the ‘Star Wars’ storyline

Those ultimately feel like minor quibbles, though, particularly when something delivers so fully on the most essential promise of all: letting guests feel like they’re actually stepping inside Star Wars. And for ILMxLAB, the project feels like the first real step in delivering on the group’s larger vision of using virtual reality, mixed reality, and other platforms as legitimate extensions of the Star Wars universe. As it turns out, the lynchpin there could be that mysterious cargo that Cassian Andor was so intent on rescuing from the Empire, and that is ultimately revealed in the final moments of Secrets of the Empire.

I ask Williams about the item, given that I didn’t recognize it from any of the films or canon materials. “Hold onto that thought,” she says with a smile. “Lucasfilm Story Group — we are very deliberate in everything that we're putting together in terms of stories. Across all platforms.”

Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is priced at $29.95. Tickets are available now.