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Uncovering The Virtual Reality Secrets Of The Empire

I’ve been a fan of location-based entertainment ever since I was a child ho bought a book at Disneyland on the making of The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and dreamed about becoming an Imagineer, one of the creators of Disney theme parks. Unfortunately, after joining The Walt Disney Company as its first in-house video game producer, I was unable to convince the head of Research and Development at Walt Disney Imagineering to bring me on to help make the theme park attractions more interactive. Since then I came close to working on location-based entertainment – including designing puzzles for an Escape Room start-up, but I never could make the transition from video game designer to theme park designer. So, I took comfort in the fact that the level of immersion and interactivity we achieved in video games couldn’t easily be replicated in real-life locations.

Well, I can’t make that rationalization any more, having just experienced The VOID at the Glendale Gallery, one of five locations that this franchise of mixed reality entertainment attractions featuring maze-like “stages” where groups of one to four visitors use a combination of virtual reality head-mounted display and computer backpack with motion tracking, haptic feedback and 4D special effects systems to explore and interact with a physical location overlayed with a virtual environment.

Last Wednesday I booked a 10:30am reservation for The VOID’s latest VR experience, Secrets of the Empire, a collaboration between The VOID, Lucasfilm, and Industrial Light & Magic’s immersive entertainment division, ILMxLAB.  When I arrived, the employees verified my registration, had me sign a waiver, and put a bracelet with a QR code around my wrist. This bracelet, they told me, would be used to connect me to my VR experience.

My hosts then led me into a room to watch a briefing video of Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story assigning me to a stealth mission to infiltrate an Imperial base on the volcanic planet of Mustafar, which I excitedly remembered was the location of Darth Vader’s castle. My mission was to disguise myself as a stormtrooper, travel aboard a stolen Imperial shuttle to the Sith Lord’s base, and retrieve an important artifact housed in a container in the storage area. It sounded like a simple enough task to me!  Let’s do this!

My next stop after the briefing ended was a room where I was outfitted with a custom-made Rapture headset with a 180-degree field of vision, custom optics, Bang & Olufsen headphones, and microphones so that group members can talk to each other. I also wore a vest with a computer in its back so that there were no cables tethering me to the experience, leaving me free to walk around as I pleased. I found the headset to be light but the vest to be fairly heavy. Both were easy to adjust, and eventually I almost forgot that I was wearing them. Once my VR outfit was secure, the employee scanned my bracelet and VR vest together, linking my accounts with my outfit. If I had been with a group, he would have had me “customize” my stormtrooper avatar by choosing what color I wanted my shoulder pads to be so that my teammates could identify me.

He then led me into a small room that was the entrance to the stage. He instructed me to flip down my visor and look at my hands. At first I only saw black through the goggles, but after he made an adjustment, I found that I was looking at what appeared to be my hands and arms covered in stormtrooper armor. I was impressed to see my virtual fingers move in synch with my real fingers (albeit with a slight lag), a level of detail that would prove useful in the middle of the mission. I later learned that my virtual arm motion was made possible due to a Leap Motion module mounted on the front of the Rapture headgear that tracked my hand and arm movement.  Unfortunately, the range of tracking didn’t allow the system to render my legs and feet in the virtual world when I looked down, which did break the immersion a bit for me.

I suddenly heard a door “woosh” open behind me, and as I turned around, I saw a walkway stretched out before me, leading to an Imperial shuttle. When I walked into the shuttle, there was Rogue One’s K-2S0 droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk) looming over me, looking as real as if the droid were actually standing next to me. He ordered me to sit down, and I was excited to feel the floor and seats vibrate as the shuttle jumped to lightspeed.

Soon the ship arrived on the molten planet of Mustafar, and the door opened again so that I could walk out onto a skiff waiting to take me to the based. As I boarded the hovering platform, I could feel hot air being blown against my face, and the floor vibrated again as the skiff moved slowly towards the base landing platform. Although I knew that I was really safe and sound in a small room, I felt as though I might actually fall into a fiery pool of lava if I leaned over the skiff’s edge too far.

After docking at the base, I boarded an “elevator”, which I activated by pulling on a real physical lever placed in the room in the exact location of the virtual level. The elevator’s movement, however, was an illusion that was completed by another vibrating floor under my feet. I reached out to one elevator wall and touched the real physical wall of the stage, but when I reached into the opposite wall, my arm went through it. This, I guessed correctly, would be the direction of the elevator exit when we reached the bottom floor.

K-2SO cautioned me over the headsets to be discrete as I explored the base so as not to attract attention from the real stormtroopers. I soon walked into a storage room where blaster rifles were hanging on a wall. (In real life, they were actually just wooden guns with triggers, but through the visor, they looked like the real thing). I didn’t need any instructions to know to pick one up. However, apparently I was expected to try shooting my blaster immediately, because when I didn’t after a minute or two, a blaster went off behind me, setting off alarms and causing K-2SO to admonish me for not being discrete.

As I moved through the base to shoot at storm troopers, the area seemed much larger than the VOID’s floor space at the Glendale Gallery. Apparently, the company’s founder is, like me, a magic enthusiast who used hiss knowledge of direction to employ illusion-based techniques used are redirected walking, which is used to give the illusion that the user is traversing a larger path in a straight line, but is actually walking through a curved hall. Redirected walking, in combination with backtracking to previous locations in which the same physical hallways and walls represent different locations in the virtual space, provides the illusion that I was traversing a location larger than the stage itself.

My rampage came to a halt when I ran came to an impassable closed door. Thankfully, K-2SO was there in a control room behind a glass window to give me a code for opening the door. This involved me remembering a series of colored button he lit up on the control panel before me and then pushing them in the same sequence. This Simon-like puzzle seemed out of place in an action-adventure, and I surmised that it was used to slow me down so that I would be separated from another group that was in another part of the maze. A minor problem is that the virtual reality buttons were a couple of inches to the left of where the real buttons were, but it wasn’t enough of a discrepancy to repeat back the three sequences required to open the door.  (I also learned later that there was an alternate way to open the door for those who prefer action to puzzle-solving, and given that I was doing this as a “solo” experience, that alternative should have occurred to me.)

When the door opened, I found myself staring out over a balcony overseeing a lava lake with a seemingly infinite amount of stormtroopers firing at me (although I’m sure their numbers were limited by the amount of time I was allocated to be in that part of the attraction). I shot from inside the corridor for cover, until I felt a gentle push at my back. I realized my earlier hunch was correct, and a VOID employee was nudging me forward into the next “room” so that he could close the physical door and separate me from the group behind me.  (My guess was that the employee was with me, but invisible the whole time, not just to make sure I was progressing ahead of the next group of customers, but also to make sure that I didn’t hurt myself or vandalize this very expensive set-up).

After a couple more “shooting gallery” experiences, I found the artifact in the storage room, leading to the inevitable boss battle. You don’t have to think too hard about who the boss enemy was. Thankfully, the Force was with me, and I made my escape.

So, was it worth it? Well, I was amazed by the level of immersion, but the graphics, displayed on a 2K resolution OLED, weren’t quite as good as those of today’s AAA video games. The overall experience cost $30 for 30 minutes (including mission briefing and gearing up), so it is more expensive than going to the movies or even to a theme park. When I returned to the lobby, VOID also tried to hit me up for more money to buy a digital ($10) or framed ($15) photo of me in my VR gear, but I declined. But when I got home, I received an email from VOID with a Wanted Poster of me with a photo of my character as if taken from a security camera. It also listed my crimes as done in the game, as well as the bounty the Empire placed on my head.

Again, was it worth it? Even though I can see some improvements that could be made in the Secrets of the Empire experience, its production values far exceeded my expectations of a shopping mall “theme park” experience, and I had a blast. I just learned that Disney and The VOID are expanding their partnership to bring a Wreck-It Ralph experience to locations this fall as well as an unnamed Marvel experience in 2019, and I can’t wait to try both to see the next advancements made by the VOID and its collaborators.

Immersion And The Jack Ryan VR Experience

Last week I attended San Diego Comic-Con to be a mentor at the Game Creator Connection, an event in which game industry professionals give advice to other game developers and those wanting to break into the industry. Although I have been a life-long fan of fantasy and science fiction, it was my first time visiting Comic-Con since I was in my twenties, when it was a modest-sized comic book convention with several hundred attendees. I was almost overwhelmed by how large this convention, now celebrating a colorful swath of popular culture, had become, with attendance in excess of one hundred thousand fans.

All of these fans showed up for five days of immersion in their favorite fandoms – intellectual immersion by listening to panels of content creators, tactile immersion by the souvenirs and other themed merchandise offered on the dealer floor, and narrative immersion offered by those who cosplay as their favorite characters. Content producers know that Comic-con attendees are the best customers and greatest evangelists for their products, as well as the power of immersion to get people excited and engaged. So movie and television studios spent megabucks not just on advertising at Comic-Con, but fully immersive escape rooms, where participants entered and solved themed puzzles for finding the way to exit the room.

The most impressive of these immersive promotional experiences at Comic-Con was Jack-Ryan: The Experience, a 60,000 square foot outdoor facility to promote Amazon Prime Video’s new web television series based on techno-thriller author Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst turned operative, played alternately by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck in the movies, and now on television by John Krasinski (best known for playing Jim on The Office).

My immersion began in the line outside the facility, where I was handed a newspaper with the headline “San Diego Invaded!” along with a Jack Ryan branded water bottle and pretzels as I waited in a camouflage-covered line leading to a series of kiosks for entering my name and email address (along with a consent form to sign, indemnifying Amazon from any legal blame for injuries I might receive from my black ops training). The kiosk camera then took my picture, and after a few seconds, the personnel handed me my “Analyst” photo id on a Jack Ryan branded lanyard for admittance into the facility.

Once inside the facility, set in Yemen despite the San Diego “invasion”, I made my way to the Dark Ops Escape Room, where participants receive their first field assignment: uncovering an double-crossing extremist conspiracy and obtaining classified intelligence. Created by digital agency AKQA and London-based interactive production company Unit 9, this escape room features live actors, voice technology and immersive set pieces. Unfortunately, the line to get in was too long for my patience, and so I investigated the bazaar next door.

After scoping out these Middle Eastern shopping stalls for more refreshments such as fruit and ice cream as well as a bag of Jack Ryan swag, which you received by inserting your Analyst id into a kiosk and answering a marketing survey. However, I discovered that actor stationed in the stall had mini-quests for us neophyte CIA analyst to complete, such as memorizing intelligence information or doing photo surveillance of another actor in the clever disguise of wearing a hat topped with a pineapple.

Immersive play doesn’t necessarily involve fulfilling quests or solving puzzles; just being in a novel environment and sharing it with your friends can be fun who don’t’ have the energy for playing games. Many visitors enjoyed simply taking selfies inside the stalls, while one stall featured a booth in which I was photographed against a green screen and then emailed a photograph with a Jack Ryan themed background, which I was encouraged to share on Instagram with the hashtag #JackRyan. Well, I’m not so easily swayed into participating in propaganda campaigns – so I shared it with my Facebook friends instead.  Take that, terrorists!

After getting an ice cream from a Yemen shopkeeper who knew refreshment what visitors to a desert environment would most appreciate, I sat in a shaded pavilion and watched participants going through the most exciting part of the Jack Ryan Experience: 4D experience in which participants undertake a training mission inspired by the series pilot episode. While wearing virtual reality gear but using physical props and sets, they run up three flights of stairs to board a helicopter, which takes them to a Yemen high-rise rooftop. Once there, they repel into the building, fight off a group of terrorists, zip line down to the ground, and escape in a jeep to a safe house.  I was impressed with how elaborate this promotional activity was, and how the combination of the physical and virtual made it exceptionally immersive for players.

As I was watching this thrilling experience, I ran into former IGDA Director Kate Edwards, who had invited me to participate in the Game Creator Connection, and fellow mentor Vlad Micu. When I told them that I would love the take the “training exercise” myself, Vlad kindly introduced me to his friend Laurens de Gier, a Unity developer at MediaMonks, the Netherlands digital production company that had created this VR training mission. Lauren explained to me that they had only four months to create the training mission part of the Jack Ryan Experience, which included participants wearing a very light HP Omen X VR backpack connected to an Oculus headset, as well as hand and foot sensors for tracking their movements throughout the mission using an OptiTrack system.  Based on everything I had heard about the experience, MediaMonks did an exceptional job with the technology.

Laurens tried valiantly to get me VIP access to the training mission, but alas, the line was capped, as people had been waiting since 5:30 that morning to try it out. So, I maintained my low-key cover and continued to work the bazaar instead. Still, the role-playing and swag I received was fun and did the trick in turning me into a new recruit for the Central Intelligence Agency: on August 31, I’ll be continuing the immersion by watching the pilot episode of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime.