Three years ago, I flew to a remote part of Utah to visit a new company called The Void, which was building attractions for an ambitious virtual reality (VR) theme park.
Here's the idea of The Void: Instead of buying an expensive VR system for your home, you visit a physical location — maybe it's a standalone building, or in a shopping center — and pay a little bit of money to have a totally unique and completely immersive VR experience, with a level of polish that's impossible to replicate in a living room.
The actual experience of The Void consists of walking in a maze-like room with black walls, very similar to a laser tag arena. But when you don The Void's VR headset (with a backpack to power the device), you might think you're walking through Mayan ruins in South America, or an alien laboratory in outer space, or standing atop the Empire State Building.
Every experience can look and feel completely different, even though it's using the exact same physical space. The Void uses clever engineering tricks to accomplish this feat, including subtle effects like temperature, wind, humidity, and rain to make you truly believe you're somewhere else.
When I tried The Void back in 2015, it absolutely blew me away. And the company has only gotten better at its craft since then. Over the past three years, The Void has successfully expanded out of Utah: You can now try the company's Ghostbusters VR experience at Madame Tussaud's in New York City, and now, the company has teamed up with ILMxLabs and Lucasfilm to produce a unique Star Wars VR experience for Disney's theme park locations.
That experience — called "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire" — debuted in early January. I was unfortunately unable to attend the grand opening, but since my older brother Michael lives in the area, The Void was kind enough to let him visit, try the experience himself, and take some pictures.
I'll let Michael take it from here, in his own words and photos (thanks Mike!):
On the morning of January 5, 2018, I jumped in my car to make the 40-minute drive to Downtown Disney in Anaheim, California. Since the ribbon cutting was at 8 a.m., all press was asked to get there by 7 a.m., which meant I was getting my butt out the door by 6 a.m.
As you can see, the sun hadn’t even risen yet. But I was greeted by a “starry” California night.
Once I arrived at Downtown Disney, press was corralled just outside the security gate. I’ve never been to the Disneyland Resort this early before, and it was surreal to see how empty it was.
We were then brought directly to The Void's experience center in Downtown Disney, located where the Fossil store and Disney Vault 28 once resided. We were split into groups of four, and luckily I was the second group they brought in!
After passing through a set of automatic doors, we were given a printed-out reservation (recreating the experience for those of you who print out your tickets ahead of time) and asked to wait briefly in the lobby as the group ahead of us were checked in.
We got to look over some of the new swag — a variety of cool T-shirts and hats — and soon it was our turn to begin the experience! First, the four of us scanned in our reservations using a set of iPads, and then used the tablets to fill out our names and email accounts. Once completed, a bracelet with a QR code prominently displayed was printed out next to the iPads, and we were asked to put them on – this bracelet would be used to connect us to our VR experience.
At this point we were asked to not take any more pictures, so unfortunately I don’t have any photos of what follows, but I’ll do my best to describe what happened – spoiler free.
Once our bracelets were on, we were brought into a small pre-show room and a fun little film gave us our mission. The story of this adventure takes place between Episode III and Episode IV in the Star Wars films, which was very clear when Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) from "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" appeared to explain our assignment. As rebel spies, we were to dress up as stormtroopers and infiltrate an Empire base, hopefully securing an important crate for the Rebellion. Sounds easy enough!
Once the pre-show video finished, we were guided to another set of iPads sitting directly in front of the screen. After scanning our bracelets, our account information appeared, and now we were able to “customize” our stormtroopers – which meant choosing what color we wanted our shoulder pads to be. I quickly chose blue, and once our team was locked in, we were whisked away to get our VR gear on.
After removing jackets and hats (but not glasses!), we were led to a row of VR helmets and vests that we'd wear throughout the experience. This room reminded me of laser tag arenas from my childhood: dim red lights with jet-black vests on sleek metal racks. The safety information we received was familiar as well: no running, jumping, or kneeling was allowed. If we had a problem, we just needed to raise our hand — apparently Rebel spies had already infiltrated the base and were ready to help us if we had issues with our gear. It was a small detail, but that’s just one example of the playful immersion you can expect during this experience.
The Void employees helped us get on the vests and gear, and I have to say the entire get-up was very comfortable. The helmet and vests were light and easy to adjust thanks to very clear instruction and easy-to-reach toggles. In fact, once the experience began, I barely noticed I was wearing it at all. Important to note: Unlike other VR experiences, there were no wires tethering us to the experience; we were free to walk around as we pleased.
Once we were dressed, our bracelets and VR vests were scanned together, linking our accounts with our outfits. We were then led to a room where we were asked to lower our VR helmets, and the experience began.
At first we were standing in a black room, but my compatriots were no longer standing there. Instead, three stormtroopers were looking back at me. And when I raised my hands, I realized they were replaced by the trademark black and white gloves of a stormtrooper. Keep in mind, I was not wearing any VR sensory gloves, but when I wiggled my fingers, gave a thumbs up, or even dabbed (sorry), my stormtrooper did the same. I was blown away, and we hadn’t even really begun the mission yet.
Once we were set, the black wall melted away, and we found ourselves in a Rebel base, like something taken right out of the movie. I looked up and saw R2 units rolling around, projecting holographic mission information into the center of our room.
Once updated on our assignment, a sliding door opened with the same nostalgic WOOSH from the movies, and we walked into a stolen transport that would take us to the Empire base. Rogue One’s K2S0 droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk) loomed over us, and when we walked up to him and touched his digital chassis, what we felt was cool metal. When we were asked to sit at the back of the transport, there were actual metal seats for us to sit in, which vibrated as the ship jumped to light speed. This was far more interactive than any other VR experience. Sure, what I was looking at was a digital world, but I was moving through a physical space that engaged with all my senses.
I’m not going to spoil what we actually did during "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire," because that would ruin the magic that you absolutely have to experience for yourself. But it was as if we walked into any number of the Star Wars films: We snuck through the hallways of an Empire base, fought off stormtroopers with blasters, and even completed an interactive puzzles (which had a very funny Easter egg if you employed a strategy ripped right from Han Solo). And all the while, The Void's trademark hyper-reality VR kept me grounded in the experience: I felt the heat of a familiar lava planet, felt the wind in my face as our shuttle brought us deeper into the Empire base, pulled a physical lever to get an elevator going (and felt the subsequent vibration as we were lowered to the deeper levels), and even was hit by blaster fire by stormtroopers. I laughed with glee throughout this entire thrilling experience, because for a brief moment in time, I was in Star Wars.
Soon, we completed our mission, and after a triumphant jump to light speed, we raised our VR helmets and found ourselves back in the real world. We were led back to our jackets and hats, and quickly took off the gear so we could watch the ribbon-cutting ceremony for this fantastic experience. As I left, I immediately called my brother to tell him how incredible and truly memorable the experience was, and how I couldn’t wait to share it with him.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony opened with stormtroopers walking through the crowd, searching for rebel spies. Once they dispersed, Disneyland Resort Ambassador Mickey Trujillo introduced both the creative minds and executives behind this collaboration from The Void, ILMxLAB and Lucasfilm. They gave passionate speeches, which shows how much love went into this incredible experience. Once the ribbon was cut, confetti was cannoned, and "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire" was opened to the public.
And I cannot wait to go back.
Curtis Hickman (left), chief creative officer at The Void, shows me around the prototype space in Utah in 2015.
Michael Jonathan Smith
You can learn more about "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire" here
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