Monday, December 18, 2017

Event: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire

Disclaimer: This post does not give too much of the VR experience away. There are other pages out there if you want that.

It's no secret that I've always been a fan of VR, doing some research on it whilst at university, but frustrated that the technology wasn't where the ideas needed it to be. But that was (cue star wars intro) a long time ago, and the technology has now caught up and is now affordable for people have their own setups at home.

As a theme park enthusiast I've also seen VR be adopted by most of the big amusement park chains but it has been implemented for the most part as a retrofit to existing rides as an incentive to pump new interest into them. This for the most part hasn't been received well, due mostly in part to the operational challenges that come from trying to get a train full of public wearing headsets on and off rides that weren't designed for it. The budget on some of the visuals is also questionable relying on cartoony visuals that don't really work. Someone has clearly sold the industry a virtual snake oil that will be a short-term gimmick at best - the same could be said of the cinema industry's attempt to get public interest in 3D cinema; the backlash there is already underway.

The future of VR isn't bleak however as we're seeing dedicated VR centres now opening up that offer experiences tailored the technology rather than the retrofitting we've seen to date. I've been to a small number of these from short-term pop-up zombie themed experiences to the more cutting edge centres like Hub Zero in Dubai and the recently opened VR Zone in Shinjuku, Japan. This is the future of the industry in my opinion and how VR needs to work.

Leading the charge in the next generation of VR experience are a company called The Void. Originating from Utah, they're a company that are specialising in all facets of the VR experience from the visual experiences, to the kit and the environments. Where they differ from most experiences is that the focus much more on the immersion elements blurring the real world with the virtual. So, how do they do this? The biggest trick is to include a physical representation of the virtual world. In most virtual games you're prevented from reaching the boundaries of the world; imagine if you were to bump into a wall if you did so in the game. So The Void use tracking technology to locate the individuals within a physical environment. The immersion is so much stronger when you can interact with the world. Then they introduced motion, sounds and smells to make the experience even more immersive. Multi-sensory immersion is their USP.

During a US road trip a few years ago I was hoping to take my group to their beta-test centre in Utah to get some early insight into what they were up to. However the bad news was that in the weeks leading up to the holiday they announced they wouldn't be in the state on the dates of my visit. But the good news was that their reason for this was that they'd been signed up by Merlin to commission their first public VR experience, The Ghostbusters attraction at Madame Tussauds in New York City. This was excellent news and so it wasn't long before I was planning a trip to the state to see what they'd come up with...and I was blown away with an experience that has left me remembering the smell of toasted marshmallow to this day. During my visit there I had a chance to speak to some of The Void staff on-site and we had a small chat on where their tech was going next; I got a "watch this space" response which led me to believe they were no flash-in-the-pan operation, and I knew that other park chains must have been as blown away by what they'd done as I had. A second installation of the Ghostbusters attraction in Toronto soon followed and a short-lived run in Dubai helped put them on the map a little bit more. 

Then in 2017 an announcement was made that I just couldn't have predicted. The biggest player in the theme park industry Disney had signed them up and given them their biggest licence, Star Wars, as the theme to a new VR attraction that had been advertised as opening in both their Orlando and Anaheim parks. With me already having a plan to visit the former in November 2018, I was buzzing at knowing I'd soon by visiting their next project, and being a Star Wars fan (who isn't) made this even more special: Ghostbusters was great, yes but Star Wars is just a different kind of special! November 2017 comes around and they formally open up the ticket purchasing website and I see the two sites, and a third...London. A total WTF moment then followed where I couldn't believe what I was seeing. This came out of nowhere; a Void installation in my hometown! It didn't take much effort for me to recruit three friends from work to join me and that day our tickets were booked. Call me a fan, I'll happily agree.

The London installation is a temporary site with a 12-week lease located in the central atrium of the Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherd's Bush, West London, easily accessed via the Central Line.  Tickets are around £32 and for that you get a total experience of around 30 minutes; half of that spent in the VR world. There is a short pre-show giving you an overview of the mission you'll be undertaking (using an actor from one of the films) and it takes a few minutes to kit up and get calibrated. It may not seem like a lot of time for the money but believe me it's worth it and you could easily spend more than that in the same amount of time in many of the shops that surround it. You also don't want to be in the virtual experience for too long; one of our group took a little while to climatise back to the real world once we were out. The maximum group size is 4 and the staff do a great job pulling individuals together into custom squads so don't think you can't go on your own.

A lot of VR experiences have you cabled to a machine restricting the movement. There is no such restriction here but for that to happen you need to carry the tech on you so there's a backpack you have to wear to which the headset connects. The backpack is attached to a jacket that you have to wear and they've done a great job customising this to be comfortable and not restrictive in any way. You quickly feel at one with the kit, more so once you're in the first room and you see your groups virtual alter-egos for the first time. It's no surprise that you are stormtroopers (that has already been revealed in the trailer) and that was my first wow moment; there's something nostalgically cool about being in the white body armour, and it doesn't matter that it's only virtually. The group quickly gets use to each other being like this. Then you realise you can see your hands in the virtual world and can move fingers in the virtual world even without the need for gloves. There must be some very clever technology somewhere on the headset that can detect finger movements and render them in realtime. The rendering does glitch occasionally usually when once person gets close to another but it's no detraction from what is going on.

The experience has you going through a number of interior and exterior sets en route to your mission with some puzzle solving along the way. There are shooting sections, dizzying sections (I was literally touched by one of my team holding onto my arm during one ascent part). They do something to the temperature in some of the scenes; most of the group emerged at the end with a noticeable amount of sweat on us, and we were shot...we were shot a lot. The cliche that stormtroopers can't aim didn't appear to be the case in this and you realise that there is more to the jacket than first seems. I subsequently found out that some of the shots that hit me were from my own team who just wanted to see what could be done with the guns. Ghostbusters has a great section where Slimer flies through you. We didn't have something with quite that impact here, but nothing in that attraction shot at you; there's plenty that do here.

The immersion was so strong that at one point we found ourselves backed into a corner unable to remove the enemy in our way. As they got closer the realisation we had nowhere to go and death was imminent really cranked up the intensity of the attraction. I'm guessing it's scenes like that which have meant kids under 10 can't take part. This may lead to some upset punters should they not read the small print. Given the marketing behind the Star Wars licence, and it being Disney owned, the idea that it isn't for all kids is something that I'm sure the PR department is already prepared for (more an American problem than a British one admittedly).

The installation itself contains two stages each with it's own queue, pre-show room and equipment racks. This helps the throughput incredibly and ensured queuing was kept to a minimum. In fact the staff were doing such a good job that we were able to enter before our allocated time. Online purchases are recommended, more so as word on this spreads, but there were people paying on impulse. 

So, I'm already an old-hand at these VR things, but the rest of my group were all new to this with their previous best VR attraction being the Derren Brown Ghost Train ride in Thorpe Park, an attraction that has been beset with technical issues throughout its 2-year existence. We were all blown away with what The Void has done and we're all already planning our return trips with other friends, and this is the best way The Void are going to become even more successful. The immersive experience they've delivered is that strong that it's putting bums on seats, even if they're virtual stormtrooper bums on a mocked up seats. It's now known how much the experience changes depending on what you do within it; I'll know more the next time I go...and that won't be too (cue intro again) far far away.

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