Star Wars fans in Orlando (Disney Springs at Walt Disney World Resort) and London (Westfield shopping center in Shepherd’s Bush) have more than Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi movie to celebrate the 40th anniversary of George Lucas’ original film. The Void, the location-based virtual reality company behind last year’s Ghostbusters: Dimension experience, partnered with Disney, Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB to craft Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire. It’s the first location-based Star Wars story.
Part of the official Star Wars canon, the action takes place prior to the events of last fall’s blockbuster film, Rogue One, and features characters like K-S20, Cassian Andor and Darth Vader and locations such as the lava planet Mustafar from that story. Like Ghostbusters, Star Wars features four-player interactive action. These teams of four will need to work together, as undercover stormtroopers, to retrieve intelligence from an Imperial base on Mustafar. Of course, blasting enemy troopers and solving puzzles is part of the journey.
The experience, which costs $30, spans 25 minutes across three acts. In Act 1, guests are equipped with the custom head-mounted display (featuring Oculus CV1 optic technology), haptic vest, laptop backpack and gun. It’s here that they receive a mission briefing from Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) before entering into the “hyper-reality” world of Act 2.
What sets The Void’s location-based experiences apart from the competition is the way each “stage” integrates special effects equipment such as fans, mist machines, and heat lamps, as well as props representing items such as doors and benches, to trick your brain into believing you’re actually in the Star Wars universe. So you feel the heat and smell the smoke of Mustafar when you’re riding a skiff to the Imperial facility. And when an enemy stormtrooper’s laser bolt connects with you, the haptic vest allows you to you feel that impact.
The experience ends with Act 3, where guests return to the real world and are offered physical rewards that vary by in-game experience but include things like photographs of their in-experience character.
Cliff Plumer, chief executive officer of The Void, told Glixel that this three-act structure is the result of the company joining the Disney Accelerator program earlier this year.
It also happens to borrow the storytelling technique Walt Disney Imagineering employs for all of its theme park attractions, which are becoming more interactive these days to connect with the Millennial and Gen Z audiences. The Void was able to work with Imagineers, Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB to bring this VR experience from concept to reality over the course of just 11 months.
Most of The Void’s team is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, but the company has a development stage in Glendale, CA, not far from Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters.
“We worked with Lucasfilm and ILMxLab creatives in San Francisco to get their input for the story back in February and March,” Plumer explained. “We were able to work across these key teams and operate on a very short production schedule.”
Given that ILMxLAB is comprised of top creatives from gaming, special effects, film, and television, and has been developing its own VR, augmented reality and mixed reality projects and experiments for the past few years, it made working with The Void’s tech team seamless.
“While most VR experiences are individual and isolated, you go into The Void with a group of people,” Plumer said. “When we work with creatives on our experiences, it’s much different writing for a Void experience versus writing for film, TV or even a video game. The guests have the freedom to move around the environment and engage with the world and the characters. You don’t want to overwrite the experience. It’s important to leave a lot of room for guests to go and discover things.”
There are several factors that allowed Star Wars to come alive in VR so quickly. Plumer said the 18 months of development that went into Ghostbusters: Dimension helped The Void learn best practices with storytelling in location-based VR.
“We follow some rules creatively in working with scripts for The Void,” Plumer explained. “It’s important to define the world you’re in, who you are in the world, and what your purpose and parameters are. And then allow users to go and find their own unique stories. We also offer Easter Eggs for fans to discover the first time around, or in repeat experiences.”
Another reason ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm and The Void worked so cohesively on this project is because Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) technology, which powers hit games like Fortnite and Gears of War 4, was used on this project. ILMxLAB has been using UE4 for multiple projects, including the Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine VR demo for HTC Vie and the upcoming Vader VR Story series. And ILM used UE4 for real-time visual effects in Rogue One, including shots that made it into the final film.
“We were able to take ILM film assets from Rogue One and directly import them from the film into the VR experience using UE4,” Plumer said.
Vicki Dobbs Beck, executive in charge of ILMxLAB, told Glixel that her team has been creating methodologies that make it easy to take assets that have been created for the big screen by ILM and use them in a real-time setting.
“A lot of the pipeline work has been done by the Advanced Development Group, which is inside of ILMxLAB,” Beck said. “That’s really important because these beautiful, highly-detailed assets are part of what has made Lucasfilm and ILM who they are.”
Beck said location-based immersive entertainment is a wonderful opportunity to explore because the creatives control the environment, so an experience like Secrets of the Empire can invoke all of the senses except for taste (at least for now).
“Our mission at ILMxLAB is this idea of stepping inside the stories, but there’s no question that once you’re in that story, there are a lot of game-like elements that really bring that story to life in a full-on action adventure sort of way,” Beck added.
Beck said experimenting with interactive storytelling in Trials on Tatooine taught the ILMxLAB team important lessons that impacted Secrets of the Empire, as well as other upcoming projects. The purpose of that demo was to understand the balance between light story and interactivity in the first-person point of view experience.
“One of the things we learned is that pacing is different than in traditional linear entertainment,” Beck explained. “We didn’t fully appreciate how much people actually want to acclimate a little bit in that virtual world before they’re being asked to do something. It’s also important not to overdo the dialogue because your brain is processing all of these visual and audio elements that are making this world feel so real.”
Over the past year, The Void built a manufacturing pipeline across the U.S., Europe and Taiwan with partners who create the HMDs, vests with haptics and backpacks, as well as the actual physical stages that the VR experiences are housed in. That’s allowing the company to scale out its global footprint. Star Wars will continue to expand to new cities around the world, including new Void Experience Centers in the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian in Las Vegas and the Glendale Galleria in Glendale, CA early next year.
Given that over a thousand people can experience Secrets of the Empire at a given location in one day, The Void has also upgraded all of the materials that touch skin to medical grade, ensuring they’re properly sanitized. They also upgraded and replaced the equipment at Madame Tussauds in Times Square, home of Ghostbusters: Dimension.
Secrets of the Empire brings both The Void and its CEO full circle in different ways. The Void (which was created as an acronym for The Vision of Infinite Dimensions) was originally one of the planned attractions inside the proposed Evermore Park theme park in Pleasant Grove, Utah. When development of that park was paused, The Void switched gears to create stand-alone location-based VR experiences that could be built inside existing structures. The London Star Wars experience was designed as a pop-up that can be moved to other locations around Europe. And while The Void has found success with multiple Hollywood IPs, that Evermore Park is back in active construction with a large facility for The Void planned.
Plumer served as chief technology officer at Lucasfilm from 2003-2006, where he helped build the technical infrastructure for the Letterman Digital Arts Center at the Presidio – now home to ILMxLAB.
“I’ve had Star Wars in my life for a long time, and this project was a bit of coming home and working with a lot of friends and colleagues,” Plumer said.
One of the great things about VR is that once a stage and system are in place, additional stories can be explored over time using the same footprint. Just as Disney has an endless schedule of new Star Wars stories for the big screen, it’s safe to bet Secrets of the Empire won’t be the only VR experience from this collaboration.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire opens at Disneyland's Downtown Disney on January 5th. Tickets are available for all locations at The Void's website for the experience.