Entering a small, windowless cube with my friend Mark, I pull down my visor and adjust the straps on my back. Around us, the walls start to shimmer and change from a patterned grey to pitted, shaped metal, a rough-and-ready space outpost that’s seen a few years.
Suddenly, to my right, Mark has gone – and he’s been replaced by an oddly casual Star Wars Stormtrooper, slouching and looking at his hands with what may have been surprise (it’s hard to say – he’s wearing a helmet now).
Looking at my own hands I see they’ve changed to black gloves, adorned with plates of white armour but still recognisably my hands, every finger moving correctly in front of my eyes as I flex and turn them over and over.
I genuinely can’t believe my eyes – I’m not even wearing special gloves! – and with all the new possibilities open to me, I do what anyone would in that situation.
No, I wasn’t having a LucasFilm-approved psychotic breakdown. I’d just stepped into a new Virtual Reality Star Wars experience created by ILMxLAB and The VOID, where guests carry out a mission as Rebel soldiers (disguised as Stormtroopers) infiltrating an Imperial base, shooting their way through rooms full of enemies and interacting with their surroundings at every turn.
In fact, the real attraction of this, er, attraction (called Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire) was just how interactive it was, with the entire mission being played through a custom-made maze of rooms complete with levers, buttons, equipment and other bits of scenery that corresponded exactly with things we had to use in the game.
And I mean exactly – pull a lever in the game, and you’re pulling a real one, of the same dimensions, in real life. Press some buttons on a panel, and you’re hitting real controls. Pick up a gun halfway through the mission, and you actually are toting an Imperial blaster. It wasn’t perfect – once or twice my hands flew across the room and became Mark’s hands, and a few things slipped or looked blurry – but overall it was pretty seamless.
“That marriage of the virtual and physical worlds is really core to that sense of hyper-reality, where you truly believe that you’re there,” Vicki Dobbs Beck, an executive in charge of ILMxLAB (Lucasfilm’s Immersive Entertainment division) in America tells me.
“It had to match precisely,” adds Cliff Plumer, CEO of The VOID, a company that specialises in building bespoke Virtual Reality experiences and who created Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire.
“We put a lot of effort into having the guest believe to a point that that handle is actually there, they can reach out and touch it. There’s lots of moments like that that were specifically designed to really add to that immersion.”
Having used VR before, I’d anticipated a fairly simple and controller-led experience, not this surprisingly tactile and involving game. Clearly, VR was a lot further along than I had realised, much closer to the fully immersive worlds of films and TV shows like Ready Player One and Channel 4’s Kiss Me First than the buggy novelty I had expected.
“I honestly believe we’ll actually be better at VR by the time of Ready Player One,” Cliff tells me, referring to the Steven Spielberg film’s 2045 setting.
“As much as Ready Player One and the rendering of the OASIS was very beautiful, it was also very stylised, so I think in 30, 40 years from now the rendering quality will surpass what was presented in that film.”
“Short of some of the more fantastical things represented in the film, I think we’ll get to roughly that level of immersion long before 2045,” VR expert Adam Harwood, a technical team lead at Ultrahaptics, agrees.
“A lot of VR experts would probably say this is a conservative estimate, but I’d hazard a guess at it taking around another 10 years.”
Of course, some aspects of Ready Player One’s technology remain out of our grasp, specifically the parts where special treadmills and rigs allow players to move in three-dimensional space without moving too far.
For now, that’s why things like this Star Wars experience couldn’t become a play-at-home game – you’d need to build the entire set to get that level of immersion – but that could change in the coming years too.
The author (and guest) testing out The Void technology
“Omni-directional treadmills are starting to come out,” Adam tells me. “Most of them involve standing in a bowl with slippery shoes on, but I think we could get to a point where locomotion with our actual legs is fairly commonplace.”
However, full immersion into a fictional world may be trickier, thanks to some pesky biological instincts in our bodies.
“There are some barriers to full immersion that I don’t think will ever be solved by VR, short of some kind of neural interface,” Adam explains.
“Our inner-ears can detect things like acceleration and our body position relative to the floor. It’s very hard, perhaps impossible, to trick this sense and when what you’re seeing and what your inner-ear is telling you are different that causes simulation sickness – like motion sickness in reverse.”
Despite this, it’s an exciting time for the technology at the moment, and most of the people I speak to seem to agree that the big advances in VR will come in “mixed reality” (basically a merging of Augmented Reality technology, where virtual creations appear alongside the real world, with full virtual reality) as well as the accessibility of VR, which may become more affordable as the technology advances.
Part of the Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire experience (ILMX Labs, The Void)
“I think its definitely going to come down in price; that’s pretty typical of the technology curve and we know that there are companies looking at making VR more accessible,” Vicki said.
“Right now to do the high-end kind of experience either at The VOID or in home you’re talking about a device that requires a high powered computer to drive it – but as computers get miniaturised and even more powerful, we can untether ourselves from the device and yet still deliver a really high quality experience.”
“Absolutely the hardware will get less expensive; economies of scale and competition will ensure this,” Adam agrees.
“We’ve already seen major price drops on all high-end headsets.”
Presumably, then, in the future the world could really be materially altered by the possibilities of VR, allowing people to live lives they never could and visit places they’d never really reach. Though it turns out that some people’s lives are being changed by the technology already.
Rogue One character K-2SO (played by Alan Tudyk) as he appears in Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire (ILMX Labs, The Void)
“We had a mother come with her two young sons who were in wheelchairs,” Cliff recalls, “and they were nervous about going through in their wheelchairs but our cast made it work for them and they went through and had a wonderful time.
“The boys obviously had the times of their lives and the mother came out, and she was teary-eyed and crying. We asked if everything was ok – and she said it was the first time she got to see her boys walk.
“With VR people can achieve things that they can’t do in the physical world, so hopefully, while we’re creating games, it’s going to empower people.”
For now, even if the technology doesn’t stretch much further than letting me shoot my way through Imperial troops, scout the boiling pits of Mustafar and flip off my friends as a Stormtrooper, it’s still an impressive achievement.
In other words, the Force – and future – is strong with this one.