Star Wars in the Age of Immersive Entertainment

In the last two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to experience what I guess I’d call the cutting edge of entertainment: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empirea virtual reality experience licensed to a company called The Void, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the new “land” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Each experience, in its own way, shows the direction we can expect interactive entertainment to go in the next few decades.

Secrets of the Empire

I participated in this experience with my sister and brother-in-law because I knew that it was a team experience and probably more fun to do with people I knew.

Secrets of the Empire is the electronic version of immersive entertainment. There were were some physical elements, which I’ll get to, but most of the “magic” occurred in the VR helmets and vests encasing us in the Star Wars universe. The helmet gives you the visual and audio sensations, the vest gives you some tactile sensation (you get a little buzz/zap when you’re hit by a laser), and there are some physical items within the simulation that you manipulate (levers, buttons) or handle (blasters) along the way.

The story of the simulation was that you and your compadres are members of Rebellion disguised as Stormtroopers who must track down a mysterious crate being shipped by the Empire. In the preshow area, you pick the color of your shoulder patch, and one of the characters from Rogue One explains your mission. If you’re like my family and friends, though, you’re too busy yakking to pay much attention to what’s being said, so you figure things out as you go along.

So the experience begins, and when you look at your friends, they don’t look like themselves, they look like Stormtroopers, even when they move their arms. It’s wild. I did pick up a glitch here and there, where it looked like my upper arm was missing, but on the whole, when you see your movements, they are the movements of a white-armored Stormtrooper.Wild.

In the first room you enter, you have to figure your way out. From there it got…interesting. My sister Colleen and I are afraid of heights, and the first door that opened for us presented us with a platform set to levitate from a high point on a tower…above a field of lava. Fans of the movies will recognize this as the Imperial compound on Mustafar. Colleen and I recognized it as something that would normally cause us to say, “Oh, hell, no!” Colleen said what I was thinking: “I don’t think I can do this.” Jim, my brother-in-law, said, “I think you kind of have to.” So I said to hell with it, and marched out onto the “platform” first, hoping that the thing would do any pitching or rolling, or I’d have probably freaked out myself. From there, we started infiltrating the compound, pushing buttons, firing blasters at enemy Stormtroopers (and other threats), and having a jolly good time along the way.

The “blasters” we picked up are physical objects, and however they looked in the real world, to us, they looked like a computer-generated version of the real thing. They made the sounds, the made the laser bolts (or the Star Wars equivalent), and each of us could talk to each other on the helmet microphones/communication systems to call for help, direct fire, and so forth. After much blasting about, we escaped, mission accomplished (the host there said not everyone did). The photo we took afterward shows us feeling mighty pleased with ourselves as we battled the forces of the Empire.

Again, wild.

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Galaxy’s Edge

For the last three or four years, Disney has been transmogrifying parts of Hollywood Studios into Galaxy’s Edge, a massive,  “Star Wars Land” placing visitors onto the planet of Batuu, a distant outpost at the “Outer Rim” of the Star Wars galaxy. Honestly, if you took out the tourists and just left the cast members walking around in their costumes (maybe throwing in a few more aliens), the place has sufficient detail to give you the feeling of a Star Wars place.

The details lavished on the environment are akin to the work Universal applied to their “Harry Potter” lands, Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. The amount of work put into making a brand-new theme park attraction look roughed up and lived in will give you a new appreciation of the art of production design, from the “rocks” to the “ancient” structures to the rusted beams, greasy walls, roughly used technologies, and funky spacecraft fans have come to know and love. There are also distinctive sound effects to be heard in the different areas, including mechanics’ chitchat, random droids, and (the one that usually got my heart going) engine sounds as the Millennium Falcon warms up for takeoff.

The costumes of the cast members have a comfortable look to them, and if they aren’t wearing rather curious headgear, the cast seem to go out of their way to wear hair styles that fit the Star Wars milieu. The food offerings are given alien names with more conventional explanations of what they are in subtitles. I enjoyed, among other things, a “Takdorian Quencher” (rum cocktail of some sort–$15, not cheap) and a “Batuu-Bon,” the Galaxy’s Edge version of an alien-colored bon-bon. The signage in the area is in the movies’ distinctive “Aurebesh” type. Like I said, the work put into Galaxy’s Edge was immense, and fans will find themselves well rewarded.

If Galaxy’s Edge failed for me anywhere, oddly enough, it was in the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run attraction. Okay, let’s start with the good stuff first, because all that deserves a nod. Again, the immersive setting hooks you: the grungy hangar, the questionable animatronic alien hiring untrained “volunteers” to handle a smuggling run, the crew assembly area inside the hold of the Falcon. All of it was spot on and…just beautiful, right down to the holographic chess set and the circular hallways.* When you step into the cockpit, it’s a bit larger (fit for six instead of four as in the film, but right there is that distinctive World War 2 bomber-like canopy, and you’re ready to bite.

(*One more thing on the attraction queue: the first time or two that you go, it’s worth waiting in the regular line even if you’re a “single rider.” It’s not much shorter of a wait, and you miss out on most of the eye candy. The entire ride queue gives you multiple opportunities to get different views of the Millennium Falcon and appreciate all the exquisite, funky detail work that went into recreating the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.)

The action is a bit more challenging. Each “crew” has two pilots, two gunners, and two engineers, each with levers to move, buttons to press, etc., to keep the ship moving. For example, the pilot and copilot each have levers to move the ship left and right or up and down and a hyperdrive throttle to pull (right-seat pilot for that one, by the way). I didn’t occupy the gunner’s seat, but I did operate as an “engineer” on my first flight and a pilot on my second. I can’t say what the gunners saw, but the engineers barely have time to look out the window at all the cool stuff flying by because they’re minding their controls.

While the interactivity is nifty, in this case, because there’s so much going on, you barely have the opportunity to appreciate the cool planetscapes whizzing by the windows. This is one of those times where I’d almost rather watch what’s going on and enjoy the experience than focus on the hardware. I suspect it’ll take a few more times to see everything I’d like to see…maybe by neglecting my duties next time.

I confess one thing: I did not get to see everything because I apparently missed the part of my Annual Passholder preview instructions informing me that a reservation was required for Oga’s Cantina. Mind you, it’s a saloon in part, so one would think there would be space at the bar. However, if one thought that, one would be wrong. Oy. I suppose I’ll have to make a reservation in the future, when the area is open to regular guests…at which point a reservation will probably be impossible to get, but oh well.

All this said, I really enjoyed my four-hour sojourn through Galaxy’s Edge. Compared to other parts of Hollywood Studios, where they tend to show the backstage stuff (to remind you of the magic behind the movies), this area is just the environment as imagined on the screen. There are no blatant backstage glimpses, such as the lighting posts seen behind the Imperial Walker outside the original Star Tours. You are meant to feel you are there. And quite frankly, after wandering around for a few hours in Galaxy’s Edge, coming back to “reality” (the rest of the park) was almost a bit of a comedown.

So as theme parks mutate in the future, I expect we will see a mix of sensory-overload virtual environments and beautifully faithful physical renditions of places we’d originally seen only in movies…with the movies serving, oddly enough, as the marketing tools for the physical experiences. It’s an amazing time to be a Star Wars fan, even if the movies make some folks a little crazy. You don’t just have to go to the movies, you can dress up like your favorite characters and walk around in the world you saw on the screen…sort of like we did as kids 42 years ago, but with more money involved.

May the force be with you.

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