ILMxLab and Unreal were instrumental in realising this new interactive experience by The VOID, based on the IP of Star Wars, which is opening at Disney Downtown in Anaheim as well as London. ‘Secrets of the Empire’ is a completely immersive media where participants are led through an entertainment experience in three Acts, something like nothing they’ve ever entered before. Using haptic technologies including smells, heat, wind and physical props, the new VOID technology systems is a huge venture by ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm’s immersive entertainment division.
Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) technology, which powers top games like Gears of War 4, was extensively used on ‘Secrets of the Empire’. ILMxLAB previously UE4 for creating the Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine VR demo for HTC Vie and the upcoming Vader VR Story series. ILM also used UE4 for VFX in Star Wars: Rogue One. “The Unreal Engine provided all the necessary tools for us to push the experiences further than what we’d done previously”, says Curtis Hickman, founder of The VOID. “The VOID is all about connecting the virtual and the physical, making the virtual seem as real as possible.”
ILMxLAB is filled with talent from VFX, games, film, and television, and has been developing its own VR, AR and mixed reality projects and experiments for many years. There are a great many artists and technicians from Unreal, ILM, ILMxLab and other companies stepping forward to make this a physical step into a completely new virtual form of adventure entertainment. Cliff Plumer, former CTO at Lucasfilm has been active in this venture, as well as Ben Snow, the celebrated visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic.
The vests the user wears gives off thumps as you are hit with stormtrooper’s lasers, and nudges as your character bumps up against virtual characters. There are smells and waves of heat as you near an explosive set in the experience. Since you are cast as Rebels in the story, directions given out by the commander at the beginning of the game are pretty much to rebel, be brave and experiment. It makes playing tennis on the Wii, ‘kinda pedestrian’.
From all that I’ve read of The VOID experience, this is new ordinary theme park ride. The idea of having it downtown and away from the Disney park was to attract a new and dedicated audience. And be ready for not just another rehash of the known Star Wars storylines. Sure, the characters are there, and yes the story is similar to rebels against the Alliance which we all know. But there are extensions and chapters not visited by those movie storylines.
Once a Virtual Reality stage is built and the systems are in place, future stories can be explored afterwards using the same real estate. While Disney may have an endless schedule of new Star Wars stories for the big screen, I’m pretty sure Secrets of the Empire won’t be the only VR experience from this collaboration. But I’m also interested in what other IP outside of Star Wars they can invest in.