Having gone through a prototype version of the experience in that Glendale warehouse, it’s clear that this experience does more than just deliver on those lofty expectations. For mainstream audiences, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire may be the first time virtual reality actually delivers on the Holodeck-esque potential it’s been promising all along.
Secrets of the Empire starts with a briefing. Groups of up to four guests are shown a video from Rogue One’s Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). There’s a piece of Imperial cargo that’s been brought to the planet Mustafar, he says, and while he was originally going to retrieve it, he’s now under attack. It’s up to the group of guests to go undercover as stormtroopers and get the job done. From there, audience members suit up with a custom head-mounted display, lightweight backpack computer, and a haptic vest, and step into an adjoining room. Pull down the headset, and the real world melts away: where other participants were a moment ago, stormtroopers now stand.
The storyline is exactly what any Star Warsfan would hope for: the group of participants infiltrate the base, get into some skirmishes, and after a couple of lucky escapes (and a big surprise), make their way out having more or less accomplished the mission. But what The Void does well is create the illusion of truly being in a virtual world by pairing physical sets, props, and sensations with the VR visuals. Secrets of the Empire uses that combination to ground the experience right from the beginning. As I stepped into a transport, K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk, also reprising his role) suggested I sit down on the ship’s bench — and sure enough, there was a physical bench waiting for me when I did. When I waved my hands in front of my face, there they were, clad in the white-and-black gloves of a stormtrooper. Moments later, when I stood on a skiff approaching the Imperial facility, I felt the heat from the lava below, while the smoky smell of Mustafar’s atmosphere filled my nostrils. Later, when engaged in a firefight with stormtroopers, I felt a sharp haptic buzz whenever I caught a stray blaster bolt — not painful, but not exactly pleasant, either.
There’s a tremendous amount of fun just in the pure discovery of the experience: the realization that I could chatter along with the people I was playing with (“I have a bad feeling about this”), or that there was a Han Solo-esque workaround to a puzzle that I couldn’t crack. But breaking it down into those kind of singular moments seems reductive, because more than anything else, Secrets of the Empire legitimately feels like starring in a Star Wars movie or TV show of your very own. Part of that is the length. From the briefing to the moment you remove the gear at the end, the experience runs roughly 30 minutes, so there’s some heft to it. Another component is the tactile reality that The Void creates, paired with the sense of independence that comes from being able to walk around a virtual location without any perceived restrictions or limitations. The Void uses design sleight of hand and misdirection to guide guests through relatively small physical spaces that feel massive and epic in the virtual world. It’s an illusion, but an incredibly effective one that creates a compelling sense of autonomy and agency.