Despite the world slowly growing used to the wonders of augmented reality through mobile platforms, real experiences still feel few and far between.
When we had a brief play around with Lenovo's Mirage headset and Jedi Challenges back at IFA, though, it was clear that something very different was being offered – not just to AR fans, but also to Star Wars die-hards. So much so that it was able to pick up a Highly Commended gong for VR/AR Experience of the Year at the Wareable Tech Awards 2017.
The game was still in development back in August, but the dream of wielding a lightsaber against enemies was as close as ever. We'll forgive you if you have a hard time getting over the pricing hurdle, but this isn't just another console video game rolled out alongside the latest film.
And now, with a more extended eyes-on test following its full release, we've revisited the bundle. But how did we fare with the Lenovo Mirage and Jedi Challenges this time around? Well, young Padawan, let's explore.
Setting up: Get yo' lightsaber on
While the end product here is hologram fun and wild lightsaber slashing, there are a few hoops you have to jump through first in order to get there.
Thankfully, you're given some help by the Jedi Challenges app, which gives you step-by-step markers to tick off and sync through to make sure everything's in place. In the box, you'll receive the headset, a tracking beacon (which you later place on the floor about five feet in front of you), USB cables to connect your smartphone and, of course, the all-important lightsaber. In order to help with the AR effect, the lightsaber's 'beam' itself is actually cut off, only giving you the whole "pshew" sound and ignition once you go under the hood. It's not the most eye-popping replica out there, but it certainly isn't flimsy, either.
Interestingly, while we've witnessed both VR and AR experiences causing a phone to get toasty when in use for an extended period of time, we haven't experienced this with either the iPhone 7 or Moto Z running Jedi Challenges. If you do suspect it's getting hot or just want to adjust a few things from the phone, though, taking it in and out of the headset is simple. All you need to do is pop it into the tray, make sure the adapter is in and slide in and out of the headset as you please.
As for the design, well, everything is pretty basic here. The headset, as shown below, is a fair bit chunkier than some of the mobile VR headsets you may be used to seeing, while naturally paling in comparison with the likes of Microsoft's Mixed Reality collection in the design department.
Still, it's very light on the face and never feels too cumbersome when fighting off the waves of enemies – certainly not something that kids would struggle with too much, as you might expect. The screen area is dominated by a Perspex visor, meaning the real world is in your eye, too, though the holograms you see are well fleshed out and your couch/flatmates don't interfere with the intergalactic battle taking place too heavily.
It all works through the headset reflecting the digital elements from the smartphone's screen onto the Perspex screen, creating the augmented experience. There's also an impressive field of view – 33 degrees vertically and 60 degrees horizontally, which is a big leap forward from the Microsoft HoloLens.
The room sensor, meanwhile, operates similarly to Sony's PlayStation Move controllers. It uses the light to track the position of the lightsaber and headset, which itself features two fisheye cameras that allow you to walk around the space.
In use: Is the Force strong with this one?
Once you're taught how to use the ol' lightsaber by a holographic character called The Archivist, you'll be free to pick challenges from the Holocron, which is an area that beams up around the tracking beacon. This projects a solar system of six planets in total – Naboo, Lothal, Garel, Hoth, Takodana, and The Core – each with a boss which fans of the series can probably guess.
This section of Jedi Challenges doesn't mix things up too drastically, meaning fighting the waves of enemies can get a little repetitive, but deflecting B1 battle droid's fire works accurately, and slashing them down as they get too close to you is always a satisfying experience. You may have to re-align your weapon from time to time, which is done by simply tapping a button, but generally this is straightforward fun.
The real challenge, though, is facing the likes of Darth Maul and trying to harness your innate Jedi skills. You get an indication of where you'll need to place your lightsaber in order to block attacks, and it's surprisingly responsive despite the rapid nature of the battle, but you also have to pay close attention to the hologram in order to pick which kind of attack is more likely to strike. As the game progresses, you'll also need to sidestep and dodge attacks, as well as deflect them.
In terms of graphics, it's not completely without resolution issues, but the fact that Stormtroopers and other foes are supposed to be holograms within a training programme results in this feeling almost intentional.
The Combat section is at the heart of the experience, but there are also Insight challenges, which see you playing games of Dejarik (Star Wars' version of chess), and Leadership trials which involve you playing a RTS tower defence game. These are definitely challenging, and progress at a nice pace for you to get the hang of things, but are also a low point for Jedi Challenges. We found ourselves quickly wanting to return to slashing things with the lightsaber after a couple of painstaking failed attempts in the Leadership section.
Should you go full Jedi?
Jedi Challenges is unquestionably a fun time, but whether you should dig into your pockets and look to join the action is another question.
The biggest hurdle the bundle faces is the price. While it's $199 over in the US, those in the UK will be paying a hefty £250. Both are too high, in our view, considering what you get in return.
And while you could make the argument that Lenovo is bringing a true AR headset to the market for a low price, there's a dearth of app support to back it up. Jedi Challenges is a neat component of the tech, but it's also pretty much the only thing you'll be using the Mirage for. And even then, its own depth is questionable. What it does provide is pulled off well, but there needs to be more added through updates to keep people coming back.
Dedicated fans of the series will no doubt take this as an opportunity to wield a lightsaber in the most realistic way yet, which we can totally get on board with, but it's important to be aware of the competition. You can jump into the world of PS VR for just a bit extra (especially with Black Friday and Christmas deals likely to be in store), while premium VR experiences are getting more within reach, providing you already have a gaming PC.
All in all, this is an AR package that brings something new to the table – important for a growing field – but we hope it becomes more fleshed out in the coming months. Otherwise, it risks becoming tagged as an expensive gimmick.