For the past 40 years, fans have yearned to visit Star Wars’ rich sci-fi universe. And now, thanks to The VOID at The Rec Room (Toronto Roundhouse), that galaxy far, far away just got much, much closer. The VOID’s new Star Wars-themed hyper-reality experience is a like a dream come true. It lets participants enter a virtual world so real you can feel the pangs of blaster fire slamming into your chest.
Branded as a multi-sensory, untethered story, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire resulted from a collaboration between Lucasfilm, ILMxLAB, and The VOID. It’s a virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR) hybrid that lets users walk through physical space while actually seeing events inside of the virtual world. In this case, Star Wars’ locations, characters, and sound bytes. The team at Cineplex invited the That Shelf crew over for an early preview at downtown Toronto’s the VOID at The Rec Room, and they didn’t have to ask us twice.
The entire experience – from the opening instructions to when users remove their gear – runs less than 30-minutes. Before entering the installation, participants strap inside a tactile feedback vest, slip on a virtual reality headset, and once inside they pick up a pump action laser blaster. This hardware gives users a 360-degree view of what’s going on around them, and the tactile feedback vest lets you feel the impact of an enemy assault. Cameras inside the installation track guest’s movements, which means that your virtual avatars remain in step with every head turn and kick of the leg. If you want to raise your hand and fist bump your buddy, the action gets rendered inside VR.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is one action-packed experience, designed to thrill VR veterans while remaining accessible to newbies. While the action inside gets intense, you don’t need Jedi-like PlayStation skills. Events play out more like a first-person interactive movie. Adding to the epic cinematic feel, before entering you receive a briefing from Rogue One’s dashing hero Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Once inside you’ll come face-to-face with a few more familiar characters, but I won’t spoil it here. Here’s the official synopsis:
Under the orders of the budding rebellion, your team will travel to the molten planet of Mustafar. Your mission is to recover Imperial intelligence vital to the rebellion’s survival. Alongside the pragmatic droid K-2S0, your team must navigate through an enemy facility walking into danger at every turn. Disguised as stormtroopers, grab your blaster, solve puzzles, and fight giant lava monsters in an effort to fulfill your team’s orders.
I’m a VR veteran – I first tried it back in 1993 – and I’ve been waiting for the technology to make good on its potential almost as long as I’ve waited for Dr. Dre’s true The Chronic follow-up. With Oculus Rift, the HTC VIVE, and even Samsung Gear, we’ve gotten closer to the tech’s promise, but we’re still not quite there. And I went into Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire with tempered expectations. So I’m happy that it proved me wrong. While this VR/AR/cinematic hybrid isn’t without its issues, it provided me with my most immersive and enjoyable VR experience yet.
So, first the caveats. The hardware remains the biggest issue. Walking around with a headset and vest isn’t so bad, and you soon forget you’re tied into the clunky gear. Once inside, though, you notice the VR headset’s limited field of vision – it’s a tunnel vision effect much like staring through binoculars. Once the action kicks off, you don’t notice as much. The biggest problem is the resolution. VR goggles don’t run at a high enough resolution to take the harsh edges off the graphics. The result is grainy, pixelated, muddy images that don’t hold up to what you see on a PlayStation 4. But again, you lose yourself in the adventure and stop sweating the small details. Think of it as watching an innovative indie film that lacks the slick look of its Hollywood contemporaries.
After wrapping up, two moments stand out. The first happened after my transport shuttle touched down on Mustafar, a lava planet. As we stepped out onto a transportation platform, I could feel the heat enveloping my body. In reality, the effect is no more than a cranked-up heater, but that unexpected little flourish added to the sense of immersion and put a huge grin in my face.
The second happened after my partner tripped an alarm and blew our cover, bringing a rain of laser blasts down on us. Stormtroopers pinned us down from the catwalks above and below. With laser blasts thumping me in my chest, I realized our waist-high catwalk blocked the laser fire. I crouched down and rested my laser rifle on the rail and picked off the troopers from the safety of cover. I got so caught up in the overwhelming spectacle that I didn’t consider the simplest solution: duck.
I’ve tried every type of video game, simulator, and AR tech, and I’ve never experienced anything like Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire. While not on par with the best Star Wars movies, video games, or rides, it does offer a scintillating look at what’s to come. The VOID’s newest hyper-reality experience provides a thrilling half-hour of escapism that you won’t find in any other medium. Part interactive movie, part video game, part haunted mansion tour, it’s the closest tech we’ve got to Star Trek’s holodeck or the X-Men’s danger room. Like a proton torpedo to the Death Star’s exhaust port, Star Wars: Secret of the Empire is guaranteed to blow people away.