Is it just me, or does anyone else think about the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man whenever you hear someone mention virtual reality (VR)? Billed as the first VR film, it opened up the idea of computer generated worlds, literally beyond our imagination, that humans would one day be able to inhabit.
It was an exciting prospect, particularly given the promise was backed up, at the time, by the fact that if you went to Covent Garden you could pay a tenner to stand on a little raised platform, strap a heavy contraption to your head, and ‘walk’ through a Tron-like world of polygons and lasers. This thrilling vision of the future soon faded as the consumer hardware, like Nintendo's Virtual Boy or Sega VR, simply wasn't good enough to appeal to the mass market. But, over two decades later, the technology has caught up with the vision, and it’s as if we’ve gone back in time, and the prospect of virtual reality is once again a hot topic. In January it was even announced that The Lawnmower Man is going to be remade with modern VR technology.
Until last week I was cynical. I’ve tried pretty much every VR and 360 experience I can get my hands on, and have generally been either bemused, underwhelmed or left feeling a little bit sick. At Cannes last year someone from YouTube dragged me into the ‘360 tent’ to try out their latest ‘cardboard’ experience. Other than the fact that my movements were vaguely replicated by the visuals, it felt no more immersive than just holding my phone really near my face.
Then last week I was walking through Westfield, just down the road from the Red Bee office in White City Place, and noticed something called The Void: Star Wars, Secrets of the Empire. A ‘whole-body, fully immersive VR experience, that isn’t just virtual reality… it’s hyper-reality’. Sold. I went in. And it has changed my view on VR forever. It was, literally, unreal.
The experience is described as the first immersive Star Wars adventure, and is a partnership between Disney, Lucasfilm, ILMxLAB and location-based VR company The Void. In essence, you get to spend 15 minutes running around the Star Wars universe. You are strapped up with head-gear, haptic body suit and laser gun, watch an instruction video, delivered by Cassian Andor from Rogue One, then head off (with up to three other people) to complete your mission, which broadly involves creeping around claustrophobic corridors and shooting at Stormtroopers.
But it's the level of detail that really turns this from a laser quest-type gimmick into a fully immersive entertainment experience. Your body suit responds when shot, and the temperature changes depending on the setting. And the graphics are stunning, as is the depth perception. One scene, in which you look out across a lava landscape, feels so real I was hit by waves of vertigo. And when you shoot your surroundings, they react as you would expect: a light bulb blows out, burn marks appear on the wall, an enemy has his legs blown out from beneath him. Best of all you can see your companions through the headset, though fully rendered in undercover Stormtrooper armour. You can even see your own virtually armour-clad arms as you hold them up in front of you.
It was the most dramatic lunch break of my life. I was so pumped with adrenaline I felt completely out of sorts as I later stood in the queue at Pret with my tuna baguette and little bag of mango slices.
Currently only three Void experiences exist on this planet. One is in Anaheim, California. One is in Orlando, Florida. The other is, bizarrely, in Westfield, London (now transferred to the Stratford branch). And thank goodness it is, because until now I had largely given up in my quest to be enthusiastic about VR. And sceptical though I was of the recent Disneyfication of the Star Wars canon, this is undeniably a bold push into doing something genuinely innovative with the property. If this marks the start of more immersive storyworlds to come, it feels like the entertainment industry has a new medium to get genuinely excited about.
Christopher Godfree is head of entertainment marketing at Red Bee