In October 2018, I had an opportunity to try The VOID’s virtual reality attraction “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire” at Disney Springs in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
The VOID is one of the top creators of “location based” virtual reality (VR) experiences. They have built facilities at a number of locations around the world, and are adding more as we speak. In addition to the Star Wars attraction, they also offer a VR adventure in the world of Ghostbusters, as well as a horror-themed attraction, “Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment” (whatever that means).
This was not my first time at a VOID attraction. I had previously visited the Ghostbusters experience at Madame Tussaud’s in New York City, and had a fantastic time. This time, I was looking forward to going inside the world of Star Wars, through the magic of virtual reality.
Disney Springs is a busy place, and I was a bit concerned about the crowds. I did not make a reservation in advance, but decided to drop in around noon on a busy Friday in October. At the reservation desk, I asked if I should reserve a time later in the day, or just go in now. Surprisingly, the attendant said there was a group starting in a few minutes which I could join immediately. I was by myself, so I would be grouped with three random participants. I was given a wristband with my identification as “REBEL Roy.” The price (with tax) came to $37.94.
After registration, I had to sign a liability waiver using one of the iPads on one side of the lobby. Personally, I wasn’t too concerned about dying in VR. After all, this wasn’t an episode of Black Mirror. I was just here to have a good time!
There was a short delay while the group in front of us took a bit longer inside the attraction, but ultimately we were underway in about twenty minutes. We entered in two groups of four, and proceeded to the introduction area. Large viewscreens were displayed on both sides of the room, with each group of four facing their own screen. First we had to activate our wristbands (using iPads mounted on pedestals in front of the screen) and select a color scheme for our stormtrooper armor, which would be visible in the virtual environment. This would enable us to identify each other inside the experience.
An introduction film played simultaneously on both screens, with the audio piped in via speakers throughout the room. We would all be disguised as stormtroopers (in virtual reality, of course), and tasked to infiltrate an Imperial base. Our mission briefing was provided by Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). After the short introductory film, we were escorted into the next room.
This is where we were instructed to put on our gear, which consisted of a vest/backpack and a VR headset with built-in headphones and a flip-up visor. The attendant ensured that each of us were properly fitted and fully ready to go. Once ready, we were escorted into the attraction proper and told to lower our visors to begin the experience.
Amusement and amazement
Without giving away any major spoilers, the basic story involves meeting a few characters from the Star Wars universe (good guys and bad guys), and blasting at various enemies while walking around different environments on a lava planet. The most fun part of the experience is actually seeing yourself and your companions dressed as stormtroopers, and bumping into each other as you try to get through doors, across bridges and around various droids and other Star Wars props. Although I had just met my companions for the first time, we all laughed a lot just navigating through the experience. I’m sure it would be even more fun with close friends and family members (Grandma? – maybe not).
What sets the VOID apart, besides the ability to roam freely in a VR world, is the multi-sensory experience. Early in your adventure, you pick up a blaster rifle (an actual object in the real world, which looks like a stormtrooper rifle in VR). You feel the wind and heat when you travel on a troop transport over the lava planet. You can touch other real objects (walls, railings, even droids), while your VR stormtrooper hand touches them in the virtual world. The haptic vests provide feedback from blaster fire, and other environmental effects. All of these things add up to an amazing experience that you simply can’t have with at-home VR technology.
There were moments when I truly experienced a sense of “presence” in VR, where I felt like I was actually in another place. As I traversed a narrow platform high over a lava lake, I took baby steps for fear of falling over the edge. As I was blasting enemies with with my stormtrooper rifle, it felt as real as if I were actually in a Star Wars movie.
A few (minor) issues
Overall, the VOID’s Star Wars attraction is the best experience I’ve had till now in VR. Admittedly, there were a few times when the virtual imagery was out of sync, or there seemed to be a lag when my companions would appear to jump forward or “slide” instead of walking more naturally. These cases were few and far between, and did not take away from my overall enjoyment of the experience.
Unfortunately, there was a point towards the end of the adventure (which lasted around 10-12 minutes), where we got stuck. In one of the final rooms, the end scene did not trigger properly, and we couldn’t figure out what to do next. Open a door? Hit a droid on the head? Eventually, an attendant had to escort us out of the experience, and allowed us to start over. In my case, I didn’t have time to go through again, but thankfully I was given a voucher for a free experience on a future date.
Given the advanced technology required for free-roam virtual reality, it’s understandable that there may be some hiccups or bugs as VR continues to develop and improve. However, the potential is enormous, and I expect that this type of attraction will proliferate worldwide in the months and years ahead.
Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.