I have always been a huge star wars fan. Watching Luke skywalker and Han Solo fight off the Empire in the original trilogy would work me into a frenzy. I would aim my plastic yellow gun at the TV and make blaster noises anytime there were Stormtroopers on the screen and run around my living room ducking behind pillows and sofa cushions. If someone would have told that little kid that he would one day be able to step into the shoes of a rebel soldier and help the Rebellion steal Empire secrets, he probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep for around 4-6 days. I recently had the opportunity to do just that.
The VOID’s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is a “hyper reality” VR attraction that places you inside the Star Wars universe. It uses virtual reality headsets, haptic feedback vests, real props, environmental haptics, and physical space to immerse guests in the world of Star Wars. The experience is now open to the public at The Void’s locations at Disney Springs in Orlando, FL, Downtown Disney District in Anaheim, CA, and Westfield London Mall in London, UK. The experience is identical across all three locations.
When you first arrive at The Void you enter some information about yourself and print out a unique wristband that will link your character and headset to you. Get your mission briefing with three other Rebel soldiers (other players) and then customize your soldier (pick what color your shoulders are) and don your gear.
You suit up with a vest and helmet that attendants help you put on. The vest felt secure on my body and sat comfortably over my clothing and didn’t shift around when I moved. There are several different vests for varying sizes of Rebels so the attraction can accommodate larger folks and small children. The large headset was also quite comfortable and could be adjusted with two twistable nobbs that tighten the sides and the top of the headset. Once everyone is ready to roll you sit down in the next room, headsets on, and you and your squad are launched in a drop ship towards the volcanic planet of Mustafar.
As I sat down in the drop ship with my three other companions I smiled as we entered the atmosphere and the fiery planet was revealed below. The visuals were felt comparable to the Rift or Vive. Once we had landed at Mustafar we all stood up, waved our arms and inspected our virtual bodies. Upon doing this we realized that the hand and body positional tracking was not up to par with the bar set by today’s high-end PC headsets. It was sometimes difficult to tell exactly where people were pointing, where their real arms were and occasionally even where the edges of their real bodies were. It just felt clunky. This wouldn’t have been the biggest issue except most of the spaces in the experience were not very large so we found ourselves bumping into each other’s real bodies when the virtual bodies didn’t appear to be close enough to bump into. Once the initial disappointment of the positional tracking wore off, I was able to focus more on the experience.
The Void—helped by Industrial Light & Magic’s xLab—definitely nailed the feeling of Star Wars. Walking around the corridors on Mustafar felt like we were really sneaking into an Imperial stronghold dressed as Stormtroopers. We were greeted with the familiar cold steel and clean lined interior of an imperial base patrolled by Stormtroopers. Needless to say, the sneaking around didn’t last terribly long, and soon after landing we were engaged in combat with Stormtroopers all around us. Grabbing a physical blaster and returning fire on a group of enemies brought me back to one of my favorite scenes in A New Hope (1977) where Luke and Leia are trapped on the Death Star and must defend themselves from Stormtroopers shooting up at them from below.
Being side by side with other people, communicating where the enemy Stormtroopers were, and asking for help in taking out key enemies was incredibly immersive. It was a pretty awesome moment and showed the true potential of “hyper reality”. In that specific instance I experienced something deeper than other VR games I’ve played, and its moments like this that Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire shines.
I got a little carried away as I looked in awe at what I was experiencing and was subsequently hit with several blaster rounds in my side. The buzzing haptic feedback of the vest I was wearing surprised me as I ducked behind cover. I felt a little bit ashamed for getting hit so early since I consider myself an FPS and Star Wars vet. During this battle we were pushed outside onto a platform overlooking the lava and I could (literally) feel the heat and wind around me (thanks to haptic environmental effects).
Secrets of the Empire continued this way, forcing us to fight and move along a series of platforms until we came to a puzzle that the group had to solve while under fire from Stormtroopers. This part of the experience would have been one of the most entertaining and intense parts, however, the positional tracking made it almost impossible to see who was hitting buttons and where our hands were in relation to others and we kept failing and getting taunted by K-2SO (the Droid introduced in Rogue One ).
This was quite frustrating, and instead of collaborating we just had one person decide to try and figure out the puzzle and just have everyone else shoot the Stormtroopers. Without spoiling anything, we ended up stealing the plans and making our getaway, celebrating by clumsily high fiving each other while our ship jumped to Hyperspace. The whole experience lasted about 15-20 minutes, which felt a little short for the $30 price. I felt that I was just getting into it the experience as it ended.
Secrets of the Empire could have been a truly amazing and immersive experience if not for the poor positional tracking which, combined with the small, clunky spaces for four players, made it just alright. There are fundamental issues with the particular setup that, if not addressed, will keep this experience from its true (and quite grand potential). At its best Secrets of the Empire made me feel like I was really in Star Wars, stealing plans for the Rebels. At its worst it felt clunky and sometimes suffered from immersion-breaking positional tracking performance. Despite the shortcomings, the overall experience was positive; for VR and Star Wars fans who already happen to be tripping to a Disney area, the 30$ price tag is worth it.