For most people, location-based VR is probably going to be the easiest way to experience the immersion of virtual reality. Oculus Rift and HTC Vive Pro are great, but they also have high barriers to entry: costly PCs and ample space in the home.
Location VR doesn't have that; it just needs a space in the real world. Don't look now, but it may have a hero in The Void's Star Wars: Secrets Of The Empire.
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It seemingly has all the ingredients for success. A solid $30 price point, a huge brand in Star Wars and great locations in two of the most popular tourist destinations in America, Disneyland and Disney World. But is it the hero that location VR needs right now, and what does it signal for competitors like IMAX VR and Nomadic?
For the rebellion
What exactly is Secrets Of The Empire? Well, it takes place in around the same period as Rogue One. You and a group of four friends are infiltrating an Imperial base on lava-covered Mustafa, the home of Darth Vader.
Immediately, The Void has the presentation edge on home-based VR. You get a short introductory video featuring Diego Luna's character from Rogue One – your mission is to recover some super secret weapon – before being walked through putting on your equipment: a PC backpack, haptic vest and what feels like a slightly modified Oculus Rift. If you've tried to set up your home VR for a session, you know that it can sometimes be a chore. You've got to make sure the sensors are right, you've got to make sure everything is calibrated and set up – and only then can you have some fun. The Void was a complete breeze.
On my journey, I was synced up with two other people – strangers I had never met before. My team and I were shuttled into the starting room, where sardonic droid K-2SO told us the plan. For the first five or so minutes of the experience, me and my new friends were just kind of amazed at the latency of it all. We were dressed up as Stormtroopers (rebels in disguise), and whenever any of us moved, from our heads to our hands to our legs, everything was tracked perfectly.
As you go through the experience, you're shuttled from room to room. Sometimes you blast stormtroopers, other times you're trying to solve a puzzle. All the while, you're kinda-sorta interacting with your teammates. The puzzle was a weird one, as me and my teammates spend a good while trying to figure out what the heck we were supposed to do. I'm pretty sure The Void's team gave up on us and just pushed us through, probably because people were waiting behind us, as we didn't really solve anything. We smashed buttons and hoped.
The Void's Star Wars experience shines when it's doing two things: giving you things to interact with; and breaking out the strength of Star Wars. It's incredibly cool grabbing at a gun in VR and finding out it's really there in your hands. It's also crazy seeing an R2 unit, touching it and realising it's there in real life. These moments feel like you've been transported into the future – this is what location-based VR can do that home VR cannot.
However, The Void's Star Wars experience felt like it needed far more of these. They were few and far between, and most of the time you're just shooting things. That's cool, and it's fun, and getting hit is a bizarre experience at first because you don't expect it and it's a shock, but you get used to that. It turns into a super advanced version of Time Crisis at that point.
Then there's the power of Star Wars tugging at your emotions. There's a moment toward the end of The Void that legitimately brought glee to me and my team mates. Yeah, we were totally terrified, but we were cackling with how happily terrified we were.
So The Void's Secrets of the Empire is good, especially if you're a Star Wars fan. But how does it fit into the rest of the location-based VR world?
To immersion and beyond?
Built upon total immersion, location-based VR has all the pieces to become huge. You can move around your space freely, you don't have to worry about setting things up, and there are props and special effects that add authenticity to the virtual world you're exploring.
This corner of the world of VR is still young though. IMAX VR is opening up in more locations, but you can count them on two hands. Nomadic has had some public tests in Asia for its own brand of immersive VR experiences, but it hasn't got the placement that The Void has right now. It's no little thing that this immersive Star Wars experience is next to Disneyland and Disney World in Downtown Disney and Disney Springs, respectively.
These places are filled with foot traffic, people shopping at places like Sephora and getting food and looking to do other things when the parks are way too crammed. However, when I was visiting The Void at Disneyland, it felt a little light. There were a ton of people walking around outside, but no one going into The Void. Employees were just kinda waiting around for the most part.
In fact, it was so not busy that I was able to move up my reservation in 30 seconds. After some conversations with employees, it appears that The Void's Secrets Of The Empire saw a lot of attention when it launched, especially from the hardcore Star Wars fan, but it then kind of fell off. One employee told me this is likely because when the experience opened it was December, a peak time for the park. They expect it to pick up again in the summer, when more tourists come to Disneyland.
Unfortunately, The Void doesn't provide numbers on how popular or well its attraction is doing, and requests to speak about the experience were not answered.
The Void is location-based VR's big public debut, but right now it feels like it's mostly a novelty in its current locations. The fans came, saw, and conquered, but it's dependent on overflowing crowds from summer tourist season, rather than people actively seeking it out year-round.
Why? Is it the Secrets Of The Empire's replayability? It's a possibility. There are some great, exciting moments in the experience, but I can't imagine paying another $30 to see them again unless I had a couple of friends to share that experience with.
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This is the problem with content-based location VR. It needs to be able to adapt and change. Think about laser tag. While the arena often stays the same, the experience is different every time because different people play it differently. Going through the same Star Wars VR experience at $30 a pop is going to get old eventually, even for the most die-hard fans.
Nomadic, arguably The Void's biggest competitor, has an edge here because it relies on a modular system. Its employees can swap out stories, props and sets in between sessions to increase the chances of people coming back. It can also adjust the experience based on how many people are going through it. I was going to do Secrets Of The Empire on my own, but employees recommended tagging along with others, for instance.
IMAX VR is a little different, more of a VR arcade. You'll get some in-depth experiences, and some exclusive experiences, but for the most part it's the same VR you know and love at home, just much more convenient.
If location VR is going to soar, it's going to need to find ways to not only thrill us the first time, but ways to keep the experience fresh over the short and long term.
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