Over 10 years ago I was in the final year of my Engineering degree, working on an assignment called Engineering In The Year 2020. It seems like five minutes ago. One of the areas I looked at was an increase in VR tech and haptic feedback giving you the ability to see, touch and experience a new design iterteration before creating a final product for the real world.
Little did I imagine that the same technology would allow me to step into the body of a Stormtrooper and become part of the Star Wars universe.
Enter The Void
You’ve probably tried a VR headset in some form – re-adjust your ideas of what a VR experience can be. The Void is a combination of technologies that lead to some special moments. You reach for a gun and you feel it in your hand. You look over to your teammate and they wave back, or nod. You get shot and you feel the laser from the direction it was fired. You feel the heat of the surroundings and while you know that it must be a trick, the world feels real.
I visited The Void pop-up at the Westfield shopping centre, London. The experience has taken over a huge area in the central atrium for a 12 week run. It looks big budget, and it needs to be with the ticket price for a half hour experience costing a punchy £30.
Upon arrival your coat and bag are taken and you receive a short orientation. You’re asked to sign a huge agreement, similar to an endless iTunes end-user license agreement, but somehow you feel like this has real risk. So maybe more akin to the insurance waiver you’d sign before go-karting. At this point my girlfriend is having second thoughts. One member of staff is not very helpful – ‘I don’t know, I haven’t been in myself’, the second extremely sensitive and reassuring – ‘You’ll be totally fine, I’ve seen ten year olds come out beaming’.
Confidence boosted we take the next step and suit up. This is the moment that you put on the jacket with haptic feedback and integrated PC. It’s not light, and is carefully lowered and unclipped by a member of staff once you have zipped up and tightened some straps. Then the helmet goes on. Full dork mode achieved!
We’re guided to a test area. Goggles down, holy shit… in front of me my girlfriend has turned into a fully suited up Trooper. We’re mission ready and step into the next room.
The first thing that strikes is the the clarity of the VR, it’s second to none. 2K optics means this custom VR headset has higher definition than the commonly available Vive and Oculus headsets. The sound is on point too, 3D mapped and with noise cancelling headphones you just feel part of the world. Our feet make the sound of metal boots on steel plating. We’re still finding our feet in the space, which turns out to be a spacecraft.
The tetchy droid K-2SO, last seen in Rogue One, asks us to take a seat. It feels mighty strange trusting that a seat I can only see in VR is actually going to be there, but it is. Reaching out I can touch the frame of a doorway. The final part of our mission briefing follows, we are in fact Rebels, disguised as Troopers to save a MacGuffin artefact. Success of the Rebellion is in our hands.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is a short story of a scouting mission gone wrong. You’ll constantly be on the move and either be under fire, attacking the enemy or trying to complete a mission objective at all times. It’s impossible not to get whisked away into the world and not think about how this is actually happening.
The experience of creating something beyond a computer game has become a focus for the Industrial Light and Magic’s XLabs team who have worked alongside The Void to make this attraction. XLabs describe their work as creating the next generation of immersive entertainment experiences. Previous projects already include building a handful of technical demos that have been published to Oculus’ Gear VR and Vive on the Steam platform, but due to their experimental and short nature (most are fewer than 5 minutes gameplay) have been offered as free to play. This experience feels like a huge leap forward.
The gameplay graphics felt comparable to the current Playstation and XBox title Star Wars: Battlefront II. The world was busy and fast paced, including myriad baddies, particle effects, laser blasts and explosions but all of this was achieved whilst maintaining a good frame rate. The quality of the renders was high, but there is still a way to go before matching that of a ‘live action’ film. Human faces were notable for their absence.
Walking around in circles
The area that you move around, ‘the stage’, is a maze of grey foam walls. From the outside it seems like it only measures 25 x 15 metres, yet you feel as if you walk much further and also as if you move vertically throughout the game at various occasions. This is clearly an illusion is achieved through redirected walking. One of the co-founders, Curtis Hickman has a background as a visual effects artist and former stage magician and has always been keen that the experience of immersion is more than just a digital one.
Extra effects including heat lamps, compressed air and mists add to the immersion along with real world props. A blaster, that you reach out and physically pick up, viable through the hardwares tracking ability, is a highlight. It was a huge adrenaline rush the first time you take out an enemy trooper that is about to take aim at one of your party members. All movements of which are visible to you thanks to roof mounted full body tracking cameras. Thinking of the number crunching and multiple systems working together to make this happen is mind boggling.
The experience is not without its faults. Wearing the suit and headset is bound to make you feel a little uncomfortable after a while, and if not for the story mechanic of wearing armour would feel even more alien. There were also times where cracks of light leaked through around the goggles and the occasional drop of hand tracking but these are minor details. The unit felt robust and I felt absolutely no lag on the gun tracking or visuals as I turned my head in during the experience and zero motion sickness effects.
We both survived our scouting mission. Being back in the real world felt more jarring than leaving the constructed world. Needless to say my girlfriend had a huge smile on her face.
I’d assumed that this generation of VR was a flash in the pan that would be put back on the shelf for another decade. It seems as though there is real future for this combined with other technologies to magically take you on trips to galaxies far, far away. The Void had great success with a Ghostbusters experience, and with this solid second outing looks set to become the leading brand in delivering this style of immersive experience. I’ll be first in line for the next adventure.
You can find similar Void attractions at Disney Worlds in Orlando, Florida and Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
Both theme parks will also be opening larger areas entitled Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge which will launch in 2019 and see more work from Industrial Light and Magic’s XLabs team.