‘Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire’ immerses customers in a rebel adventure

I emerged victorious from the smoldering inferno of a planet after murdering several stormtroopers, battling a massive lava-strewn insectoid and having a comrade impaled by Darth Vader’s lightsaber.

This was not real life, clearly, but it felt like it.

The adventure took place within the “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire” virtual reality attraction that opened Jan. 5 in the Downtown Disney shopping district.

The attraction was co-created by The VOID, a virtual reality company, and ILMxLAB, a division of Lucasfilm that creates next generation immersive entertainment experiences.

The attraction sends teams of four to the lava-infected planet of Mustafar in the Outer Rim Territories of the Star Wars galaxy — also the location of the emotional showdown between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.”

Earlier this week, I was able to secure a spot at the attraction. Considering my novice virtual reality experience, my expectations ran the gamut.

What ensued was a harrowing baptism by blasters to the world of VR.

After signing a liability waiver and meeting my teammates, we were led into a room where a video from Captain Cassian Andor of the “Rogue One” film divulged the straightforward goal of the mission: sneak into an enemy installation disguised as stormtroopers and attain intelligence necessary for the success of the rebellion.

Now considered rebel recruits, we were fitted with our equipment — a headset with a visor and a vest — and sent into the void.

The sounds and images emitted from the headset and visor created an overwhelming panoramic sensation that completely drew me into the artificial world.

Furthering the atypical nature of this virtual reality experience, The VOID team made sure to map the visuals in the headset to the surrounding room. When seeing walls in the headset, those walls exist in reality. My body as well as my squad, too, was transformed into that of rebels disguised as Imperial troopers.

The continuing impulse to wave my hand in front of my face revealed an arm adorned in white plastoid trooper armor with a black glove.

Tactility also plays an important role in the attraction. The sensation to reach out and touch something to verify its fidelity to reality is a frequent temptation and is generally met successfully, lending further validity to the artificial experience.

When troopers trained their blasters on me, the pain of a laser striking my abdomen was felt with a slight pulse through the vest. It’s not actually painful, but enough to keep you on your toes.

While searching the grounds of the installation, the molten lava of Mustafar actually felt like it was releasing heat and the planet’s scorched air seemed to have its own scent.

Accompanying the rebel team on our mission was the sardonic Imperial-turned-rebel-droid KS20 from “Rogue One.” The robot guided us through the experience, providing direction during crucial moments.

While moving through the labyrinthine Imperial facility, my rebel team got the chance to blast squadrons of stormtroopers and face off against a large insect-like creature that emerges from lava. But, the most fear-inducing moment in the experience was when a familiar sound of heavy breathing portended the arrival of the maniacal Darth Vader.

When his red lightsaber ignited, I took a few steps back. It really did feel like the tyrannical ex-Jedi was headed for me.

The idea for the project arose in early 2017. The VOID and ILMxLAB teams were able to work efficiently to bring the attraction to life in a fairly short period.

Cliff Plumer, CEO of The VOID, said the collaboration was a perfect union because he used to work at Lucasfilm and both companies share a similar vision.

“There was a relationship that already existed,” Plumer said. “So when they greenlighted us we were able to move very quickly.”

In collaboration with the Lucasfilm story group, ILMxLAB and The VOID whittled down the setting of the story to Mustafar.

“The reason we chose Mustafar was, although it had been shown briefly, it’s not a place that fans had spent much time at or where particular stories had been set,” said Vicki Dobbs Beck, head of division of ILMxLAB. “We thought it was an interesting opportunity. As soon as we knew what the story focus was it was an incredibly tight collaboration to figure out how do you create an experience that is truly compelling and leverages the exciting capabilities of The VOID.”

After creating the story, the groups set out to determine how best to immerse people in the fictional world. Plumer said in order to foster the believability of the setting, the companies needed to stimulate, or rather, fool the senses.

“We have to think of what we do as a bit of an illusion, a magic trick,” Plumer said. “We don’t always want to show what’s behind the curtain. ”

So, in order to not reveal the wizard behind the curtain, I’ll say that the experience relies on both technological aspects as well as physical sleight of hand.

“Having things that you feel and smell convinces the brain that this is real,” Plumer said. “That’s how we tie it all together and have you really believing you are on the planet of Mustafar.”

Tickets for the experience cost $29.95 and can be reserved online at https://www.atomtickets.com/theaters/the-void-at-downtown-disney-district/9999991.




10 a.m. Jan. 12: This article was updated to reflect the official spelling of “The VOID.” The article originally referred to the company as “the Void.”

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