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'Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire' brings the Force to VR

'Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire' brings the Force to VR
An image from "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire," a new virtual reality experience at Downtown Disney in Anaheim. (ILMxLAB / The VOID)

Just after donning our virtual reality headsets — and before pulling down the visors to completely surrender to a digital galaxy — four of us would-be rebels were given one major rule: no running.

No running? No problem.

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There were many concerns I had before entering Downtown Disney's the Void, home to the recently opened virtual reality experience "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire," but breaking into a trot wasn't one of them.

As a skeptical admirer of virtual reality technology, I'm accustomed to the disorientation and even feelings of motion sickness that come from wearing any of the multiple headsets I have in my apartment. So while "Secrets of the Empire" promises excitement — namely a battle with Stormtroopers amid a space station built on a potentially unstable lava-filled planet — I was mainly worried that I'd eaten too much for lunch.

After all, "Secrets of the Empire" — a tech showcase as well as a mini canonical entry in the "Star Wars" universe — isn't sedentary, and it has participants, four at a time, traversing a small, maze-like structure while plugged into the matrix, to mix sci-fi/fantasy film metaphors.

A few minutes into the attraction, however, something unexpected happened. I started running.

Virtually disguised as Stormtroopers, our mission was to steal data from the Empire on the volcanic planet of Mustafar, seen in "Revenge of the Sith" and "Rogue One." Set just before the latter film, familiar faces such as the droid K-2S0 (voiced again by Alan Tudyk) figure heavily in the walk-through attraction, which incorporates real-life props and argues that the long, not-yet-ready-for-prime-time medium of virtual reality has a place in the present and not just the ever-mysterious "near-future."

Moments before I became a rule-breaker, I had been standing on what felt sort of like an outer-space fire escape — in reality a concrete floor in Downtown Disney — and I dropped to one knee to duck behind an iron wall. The cover was necessary, as I was being pelted by blaster fire from virtual Stormtroppers, my vest vibrating with each direct hit.

I stood only to raise my own firearm, a relatively weighty toy-like gun. As the Stormtroopers bombarded us — from above, below and from hovering spacecraft — we were urged to continue our advance through the space station.

And then I ran.

Only for a split second, as my thoughts suddenly recoiled to remind myself that I was essentially inside an elaborate virtual reality game in Anaheim. But that momentary urge to push past my newfound comrades and bolt down an intergalactic corridor was enough to make me realize that the illusion presented by the Void and Lucasfilm's forward-looking ILMxLAB had worked.

I thought, if only briefly, that this was my reality. From here on out, it'd be a rebellion and droids. So long house cat, desk job and all the stress of Earth in 2018.

That's not to say that "Secrets of the Empire" is 100% perfect. While the vest and headset can mimic the feel of a Stormtrooper outfit, which resulted in utter fascination the first time I looked down at my hands and arms and saw them covered in white armor, once or twice, I seemed able to move quicker than images presented to me. Likewise, I remember wondering at one moment why my legs seemed invisible.

Minor quibbles, perhaps, in an excursion that had me and three strangers high-fiving and shouting militaristic-like orders at one another once we had received our Stormtrooper makeover.

"On any new platform, it really needs to be social in order to get adoption," said Cliff Plumer, chief executive of the Void, a Utah-based technology firm. "Obviously, there's been a lot of conversations about VR the last couple of years, but it hasn't had that social aspect. That's why with what we did with 'Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,' we think more consumers will be introduced to this new new form of storytelling."

"Secrets of the Empire," which from suiting-up to exiting takes about 30 minutes, opened earlier this month in Anaheim and also has a home at Disney Springs in Orlando, Fla. Later this year, the Void intends to bring the experience to the Glendale Galleria. Thus, "Secrets of the Empire" may be the best argument yet for bringing virtual reality to the masses, if not the home.

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"We can create these large-scale experiences in a very small footprint," Plumer said. "Our goal is to bring these to places to make it more accessible — shopping malls, movie theaters or different types of locations so more people have access."

Todd Martens in his virtual reality gear at the Void, photos that are sold for $15 at the Anaheim experience.
Todd Martens in his virtual reality gear at the Void, photos that are sold for $15 at the Anaheim experience. (ILMxLab / The Void)

Because it incorporates physical effects — in a scene where the lava has seeped into the station, the floor gets a little squishy, and guests will even be encouraged to sit at one point — "Secrets of the Empire" is working constantly to counteract any "it's only a game" impulses.

For instance, I discovered that blasting away at the scenery next to the enemy Stormtroopers would create lots of smoke. I fired feverishly, thinking that that might impede their aim, but also found myself actually attempting to wave the mist away.

Situated as it is as a separate experience next door to Disneyland, "Secrets of the Empire" mostly reminded me of trips to Walt Disney World's Epcot as a youngster, when the Florida park was then partly a showcase for potential future technology. It was always enticing to play with gadgets that not only worked now but also offered a glimpse at where home entertainment could be headed.

Although some of Disney's smaller rivals in the theme park business have experimented with virtual reality headsets in their parks, including Knott's Berry Farm, SeaWorld and Six Flags, a digitally created universe doesn't capture the grandeur of a fully realized, hand-crafted world such as Disneyland Resort's Cars Land or New Orleans Square. Instead, "Secrets of the Empire" feels more like a next-century arcade, and in the same way that coin-op machines once ceded dominance to the Nintendo Entertainment System, the ultimate hope remains for virtual reality to become similarly accessible.

"I love that location in Downtown Disney," said Vicki Dobbs Beck, who oversees Lucasfilm's ILMxLAB. "You're park adjacent, right? I think the Void experience is a really great, intimate, stand-alone experience. And then you can go into the park and have this highly immersive, multi-faceted experience that crosses many, many boundaries. I think that they're really nice complements for one another."

"Secrets of the Empire" also makes the smart choice of setting its story before the current film trilogy. Inside a virtual reality headset, fast-moving images today still aren't photo real. The worlds of "The Force Awakens" and "The Last Jedi," however, emphasize large-scale, human-built sets, meaning a planet such as Mustafar, introduced in the digital-obsessed prequels, translates better to this blast-'em-up experience.

And since lava is hot, the locale allowed the Void to play with temperature to heighten the authenticity.

"We were looking for a location that might be familiar to people —they've definitely glimpsed it in the films — but they hadn't actually visited or spent a lot of time there," Beck said. "It was an interesting planet to start with, and added some immediate elements for the hyper-reality — the heat, the lava, etc."

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But alas, no porgs.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

'Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire'

When: 9 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. daily

Where: Downtown Disney, 1580 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim

Cost: $29.95

Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens

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