SPOILER ALERT! This article contains details of Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire.
With Star Wars: The Last Jedi opening in theaters in December and the official unveiling of Star Wars Land in Disneyland coming in 2019, the intergalactic phenomenon continues its transmedia dominance with Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, an all-immersive, hyper-reality virtual reality experience from ILMxLAB and The Void that merges storytelling, an amusement park attraction, and virtual reality and launches to another level of hyperspace.
The experience continues the emergence of VR into the mainstream and is essentially a short film where the viewer is not only watching a Star Wars experience but participating as well. ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm’s Immersive Entertainment division, and The Void, a whole-body, fully immersive VR experience, joined forces (no pun intended) to bring Secrets of the Empire to life…or virtual reality.
“When this collaboration started, we were looking at what the Void does well and what story really fits that,” Diana Williams, Story Group Executive & Content Strategist at ILMxLAB, tells Deadline. “We came upon this idea that would allow people to immerse themselves into a Star Wars story to give them what The Void does really well and come out feeling that they have not only feeling that they have experienced a story that they have crafted together, but a story that they could find themselves in and craft their own part of the story.”
The story that ILMxLAB and The Void created isn’t just your run-of-the-mill stationary VR game. It’s an actual experience that encompasses all of your senses, one that will make even the most die-hard Star Wars fan giddy with mad joy. Williams along with ILMxLAB Lead Experience Designer Ian Bowie and The Void co-founder and chief creative officer Curtis Hickman and CEO Cliff Plumer made sure of that.
Star Wars purists will be happy to know that this experience is indeed folded into the intergalactic universe as it takes place between Episodes 3 and 4. Timeline-wise, it lands around Rogue One, which would explain why Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) gives you your mission in the beginning of the experience.
The mission is simple: You and your friends are part of the rebellion and are to travel to the molten planet of Mustafar. Disguised as Stormtroopers, you must recover Imperial intelligence vital to the rebellion’s survival. Alongside the pragmatic droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), your team must navigate through an enemy facility walking into danger at every turn.
You are then suited up in a VR helmet and a vest and as soon as that visor goes down, you are transported into the mission. You look and feel like a Stormtrooper and are able to grab everything around the space, solving puzzles and firing blasters at enemies as well as space monsters. It legitimately feels and looks as if you are in a Star Wars movie as you are able to feel the heat from the lava boiling below your feet and the sting of blaster shots as it hits your chest. At one point it’s as if you are flying on a cruiser to a space base. It’s so surreal that it feels mind-blowingly real.
“The goal of The Void is to make the world you’re visiting as real as possible,” said Hickman. “What tricks and illusions can be designed to realize that fact? That’s something we put a lot of emphasis into. When the opportunity came for us to collaborate, it was a match made in heaven. We could do something that me, as a fan, could step into Star Wars and not just be there and not just see, but feel like I was there and part of the story.”
“When you go through a second time, you’ll see things you didn’t see the first time,” adds Plumer. “There’s lots of things to discover. For every user, they have their own unique experience.”
At one climactic point in the experience, the ultimate Star Wars baddie Darth Vader comes out and begins attacking you — something that some people felt was too real.
“We are seeing reactions to stories in visceral ways — in ways we haven’t seen on any platform,” said Hickman. “We had great examples when they experience Vader at the end. We had one woman who saw him and said ‘No, no, no!’ and immediately looked for an exit. Everyone behind her was defending her — and that’s their story and that’s what they can take away.”
Whether an experience like Secrets of the Empire will eventually be housed in a movie theater next to screens playing Thor: Ragnarok and Girls Trip isn’t necessarily a question that can be answered — but it isn’t something that should be discounted either.
“It’s beyond just the theater experience,” said Plumer. “We are putting these Void locations adjacent to a theme park. We could do it at movie theaters, shopping malls, touring events — it’s much more than just putting it in one of the movie theaters.”
Plumer says this is a case where creativity and story drive the technology. “Some of what’s been happening in the past 10 years is being driven by devices,” he said. “We don’t think of ourselves as just a VR company. We are creating experiences. It engages all your other senses. It’s just not what you see and hear.”
“This being the 9th coming of VR. At ILMxLAB, we are pushing the idea of immersive storytelling — story is important,” adds Williams. “In the early stages of VR, storytelling wasn’t the focus. It was more of what the tech could do. That was the right thing during the stages. Where we are at now, we are asking where is storytelling on this platform. We are treating it as its own platform. It’s a great place to tell its own story.”
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire will open to the public December 16 at Disney Springs at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando and will have a pop-up experience at the Westfield in Shepard’s Bush in London. It will then open its doors in Downtown Disney at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim.
Watch the trailer below.