Virtual reality company The Void has carved out a unique niche with immersive experiences that combine VR headsets with real, physical locations, and now the company is tackling its biggest property yet. Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire will be the latest in The Void’s line of “hyper-reality” experiences, offering guests the chance to step inside a virtual Star Wars world later this year with locations in both Anaheim, California, and Orlando, Florida.
The project is a collaboration between The Void, Lucasfilm, and Industrial Light & Magic’s immersive entertainment division, ILMxLAB. Similar to previous Void attractions, like Ghostbusters: Dimensions, Secrets of the Empire will be a VR experience that guests can see, touch, and interact with. Visitors walk through a physical stage and sets, with the virtual world mapped on top of it thanks to a customized head-mounted display, haptic vest, and backpack computer. If you see a virtual wall, you can actually touch it, and if there’s a virtual chair, you can sit in it. Combine that with sensory elements like smells, heat, or mist, and The Void provides an overall experience that we’ve found uniquely impressive.
“ILMxLAB is really about immersive storytelling experiences in the home, potentially in theaters at some point, and in public venues,” Vicki Dobbs Beck, executive in charge at xLAB, tells me over the phone. “This is a great example of an experience where you control 100 percent of the environment, and therefore can introduce all of the senses. When you marry the physical with the digital, it creates a level of immersion that’s not possible in any other way.”
As for what Secrets of the Empire will actually be about, details are all but non-existent, with neither Lucasfilm nor The Void willing to share specifics just yet. However, one piece of concept art has been released in conjunction with the news, and assuming that it accurately depicts what the experience is aiming for, we can draw some conclusions. The image depicts the planet Mustafar, with Darth Vader’s castle (as seen in Rogue One) off in the distance. Classic, original trilogy-era Stormtroopers are engaged in a firefight, while a droid similar to K-2SO is shown advising several participants, two of whom are wearing Stormtrooper armor themselves. Taken together, it infers a scenario set sometime near Star Wars: A New Hope, where players will be equipped with armor and blaster rifles and asked to battle in Darth Vader’s backyard.
The Void CEO Cliff Plumer previously worked on Star Wars films in the visual effects arena, and says reaching for that same level of quality with Secrets of the Empire has required a significant step forward for the company in almost all aspects of its presentation. “The quality bar that you can expect with an intellectual property like Star Wars is just beyond next level,” Plumer tells me over the phone. “It’s what you would expect coming from an ILM.” In order to meet the expectations of its partners, he explains, the company simply had to up its game. “The visual fidelity, the sound, all the other sensory effects… If Ghostbusters was version one, it’s hard to even put a number on which version this is, because it’s not version two.”
Whether audiences find the combination attractive on a massive scale won’t be clear until the new locations open this holiday season — perfectly timed to ride the Star Wars: The Last Jedi hype wave. But what’s undeniable is the degree to which Disney appears to be betting on immersive entertainment as an expansion of its entertainment portfolio. The Anaheim-based Secrets of the Empire will be located in Downtown Disney, the shopping complex just outside the gates of Disneyland, while the Orlando location will be in the similarly themed Disney Springs location. Both are high foot-traffic areas, but more importantly they’re not within the gates of a particular park. They’ll be there for people to try out relatively casually, giving them an accessible glimpse at what it’s like to step inside an immersive, interactive world.
That little taste is essential, because Disney’s plans only ramp up from there. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the long-awaited theme park expansion, will be opening in 2019. The goal of that land will also be to transport guests into the world of the films — but instead of VR, it will be doing it with actual, physical locations and interactive storylines. Beyond that are the plans for Disney’s Star Wars-themed hotel, which will essentially let guests live out their own complete narrative adventure over several days.
All three initiatives shift the entertainment focus away from passive media, and toward interactive, immersive forms. Some may be digital, some may be physical, or in the case of The Void, they may be both at the same time. But they are all ultimately building toward the same immersive endgame.
“One of the trends that we’ve all been seeing of late is that one of the most compelling ways to build a groundswell — around VR, as an example — is by giving people opportunities to try it,” Beck says. “This is one of the most compelling ways people will have to literally step inside the world of our stories, which is our goal.”