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Star Wars: Jedi Challenges pits you against Kylo Ren with an augmented reality lightsaber

Preorders available in time for Force Friday II

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Earlier this year at Disney’s D23 Expo, the company announced Star Wars: Jedi Challenges, an augmented reality toy that it was creating in partnership with Lenovo. Today the device is available for preorder as part of Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s big Force Friday II retail push. Last week, I had the chance to try out one of Jedi Challenges’ most intriguing modes: a lightsaber battle that put me face-to-holographic-face with none other than Kylo Ren himself. It was an early look at a product that merges some relatively bleeding-edge technology with one of the most popular film franchises in the world. And while it’s important to recognize this for the toy that it is, it’s a toy that my 12-year-old self would have killed for.

The system is made up of three different components: Lenovo’s Mirage AR headset, a replica lightsaber controller, and a tracking beacon. However, the experience is actually run by the Jedi Challenges mobile app, which runs on a user-supplied iPhone or Android device. (My demo kept things in the family by utilizing a phone from Lenovo-owned Motorola.) The phone plugs into the headset with a cable, and is then placed into a tray that slides into the headset. The beacon sits on the floor, with the twin cameras in the headset using the reference point for its inside-out positional tracking.

The most enticing piece of hardware associated with Jedi Challenges isn’t the headset, however. It’s actually the controller, which takes the form of an impressively detailed lightsaber replica. For those keeping track, it’s modeled from the Graflex-style lightsaber used by Daisy Ridley’s Rey in The Force Awakens. As a standalone piece, it’s not completely screen-accurate — at least not when compared to some of the hyper-detailed lightsaber replicas that the fan community makes — but given that it’s part of a bundle that will be priced at $199.99, I found the attention to detail rather impressive. Of course, the lightsaber doesn’t have a fully extendable blade. Instead, it features a short, blue stub that lights up, which comes into play during the lightsaber battle itself.

As for the headset experience, it’s worth stating now that limited field of view is an ongoing problem with augmented reality headsets. Microsoft’s HoloLens has been frequently criticized for its limitations, and a similar problem is evident with Lenovo’s Mirage VR headset as well. The headset has a roughly 60-degree horizontal field of view and 30-degree vertical FOV, which, given the price point and target market, is somewhat impressive. But Jedi Challenges is still more like looking at a window where holographic characters appear, rather than a totally immersive experience.

That said, what it does deliver is unquestionably fun. The premise of the toy is that players are working on their Jedi training with the help of a character called the Archivist, who throws various holographic challenges and exercises your way. The headset itself weighs around a pound before slotting in a smartphone, and it felt light and balanced enough on my face to never be too burdensome. Using Star Wars-style holograms of characters creatively side-steps any resolution weaknesses, and when Kylo Ren came charging at me, I reacted like you’d expect: I brought my lightsaber up in front of me to block the blow.

The headset keys off the blue stub at the top of the controller, along with an accelerometer built into the hilt, to generate the in-headset lightsaber blade. In theory, it should feel like a seamless extension. In my demo, I found that the virtual blade veered off at about a 7-degree angle from the controller itself, which did hamper the illusion. (The demo wasn’t using final hardware or software, and representatives from both Lenovo and Disney told me that in the shipping version the blade and controller should align correctly.)

The gameplay is definitely guided. A phantom blade appears in the headset to show the player where they should place their lightsaber to parry incoming strikes, and their are visual indicators when Kylo Ren is vulnerable. Given the limited field of view, I often found myself searching for that guide to block, because I couldn’t see enough of Kylo Ren to gauge when he was coming in based on body language alone. Player health is indicated via a creeping red haze in the periphery that intensifies as the player takes damage, and while I was taking hits early on, I managed to mount a comeback and take him out by the end. Ren was the only character available during the demo, but a number of different characters will be available for the lightsaber battle game, and the big bad will be none other than Darth Vader himself.

The Star Wars: Jedi Challenges experience isn’t perfect by any means, but considering the whole thing is running off a smartphone, it’s remarkable how integrated it all ends up feeling. The lightsaber controller has haptic feedback that triggers upon blocks and strikes, and given the detail in the hilt replica itself, I found it quite easy to get swept away in the moment and feel like I was actually engaged in a lightsaber fight. I’ve battled with a lightsaber in virtual reality before, and I’ve learned basic sparring moves using stage combat-ready replicas. But in terms of the sheer, visceral thrill of waving around a lightsaber like a kid and pretending I was in Star Wars, Jedi Challenges was immediately compelling.

However, Disney is positioning this system not just as a lightsaber battle game, but more like a complete Star Wars AR platform. The system will also include a re-creation of the Dejarik holochess game featured in the original Star Wars, and a strategy-based game that will let users direct Rebel soldiers in a land-based assault against Imperial forces. I wasn’t able to try either of those modes, but was told that the lightsaber continues to be the controller in those contexts as well.

While I only had a brief amount of time with Star Wars: Jedi Challenges, I nevertheless walked away impressed by what it had to offer. I remember growing up with lightsaber toys that were nothing more than flashlights with plastic tubes stuck on the end. It’s impressive that, thanks to technologies like augmented reality, that rather limited experience can be replaced by a virtual duel with a holographic character powered by a smartphone. When examined in context — as a toy aimed at ages 10 and up — Star Wars: Jedi Challenges is rather remarkable. Enough so that I may just find myself cruising Lenovo or Best Buy’s websites for one of those preorders. The bundle isn’t scheduled to ship until November, but after all — one can never have too many lightsaber replicas.

Photography by Bryan Bishop / The Verge

Update August 31st, 1:00PM: Added new pre-order information.

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