While everyone knows Star Wars and Indiana Jones, not everyone is familiar with ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm’s immersive entertainment branch that builds interactive experiences using VR and AR. In this episode of Innovation Answered, we take a deep dive into ILMxLAB’s projects and ask, “What will the entertainment of the future look like?”
Podcast host Kaitlin Milliken sits down with Vicki Dobbs Beck, the Executive in Charge of ILMxLAB, to find out how her team builds fully immersive experiences for fans. In her interview, Beck explains how her team uses new technology to build relationships between users and characters — shifting the movie studio’s approach from storytelling to story-living.
Special thanks to our friends at Planbox for sponsoring this episode.
Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. In each episode, we ask a central question about the things that make change hard at large companies. Then we get answers from experts about how businesses can overcome these challenges and make an impact. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from Innovation Leader.
Today we’re taking an industry deep dive. Our big question: What will the entertainment of the future look like?
When we watch movies, we feel a connection with the characters on screen, but imagine walking, shoulder-to-shoulder, with your favorite heroes. Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB is making that fantasy a reality. By weaving new technology with timeless storytelling techniques, ILMxLAB has pioneered fully immersive interactive entertainment. They call it “hyper-reality.”
One of the team’s first projects brought the Star Wars universe to life. In Secrets of the Empire, participants don a VR headset, backpack, and special vest that transforms them into rebels disguised as stormtroopers.
[CINEMATIC MUSIC AND LIGHTSABER SOUNDS]
Transducers in the floor make the ground rumble. Heaters and scent generators transport fans to intergalactic lava fields. Visitors can even interact with one of the greatest movie villains of all time: Darth Vader.
[DARTH VADER BREATHING]
Vicki Dobbs Beck, the Executive in Charge of ILMxLAB says that the goal is to shift from storytelling to story-living.
Vicki Dobbs Beck: ILMxLAB is really Lucasfilm’s immersive entertainment division. And what we’re trying to do with ILMxLAB is use new technologies like virtual reality, augmented, and mixed reality even various forms of mobile, to create stories that you can literally step inside.
Kaitlin Milliken: We sat down with Vicki after her keynote session at our 2018 Impact event to learn more about the entertainment of tomorrow.
So a lot of people know Lucasfilms, or at the very least they’re familiar with works that the company has done like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Can you talk a little bit about the projects that ILMxLAB specifically has worked on.
Vicki Dobbs Beck: Sure, most of our projects to date have been with virtual reality. And virtual reality is a really powerful way to create a sense of place and intimate interactions with characters.
So I would say two of our biggest projects to date — and two that I’m very proud of — are both location based. And that’s kind of leading the way in this space.
One is “Carne y Arena,” which is a project that we worked on in collaboration with director Alejandro Iñárritu and Legendary Entertainment. That project was an art installation. So most of the installations are in museums.
And the purpose of that experience was really to let people experience what its like for that kind of harrowing quest for immigrants to cross the border from Mexico into the United States seeking a better life. There are a number of immigrants who are in the dessert in the middle of the night and they get caught. And you are essentially in the center of that experience it feels very visceral, very real. And when you do the experience, it’s in a very large space. It’s 50-by-50 feet. You are barefoot, and you are walking in the sand. They also keep that environment very cold, because that’s what it’s like to be in the dessert at night. That’s the first example really.
And the second one is “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” which is a collaboration which we did with THE VOID. And it’s what they call a hyper-reality experience. And in a hyper-reality reality experience, what is quite special about it is that there’s a one-to-one mapping of the virtual world with the physical world. For example in the virtual world, if you saw a wall, and you reached out and touched that wall, there would actually be a wall there.
So that’s quite different than what happens in your home, obviously. Because you see a wall, you reach out, and there’s nothing there. So that one-to-one mapping causes your brain to really buy in to the reality of this place. In “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” you’re disguised as stormtroopers. You are on the planet Mustafar at an outpost. Mustafar is where Darth Vader — essentially where his home is. And your job is to find information that’s critical to the rebellion’s survival.
One of the things that VR does incredibly well is it allows you to deliver scope and scale. So you have this sense of really seeing the vistas of Mustafar or seeing the many story high of this outpost.
Kaitlin Milliken: Going to the movies is a fun activity that’s been around for a long time. But what’s disrupting the industry and will hyper-reality be the entertainment of the future?
Vicki Dobbs Beck: You know, I think that actually each kind of experience is going to evolve, but one of the things I think is particularly exciting is the idea of connected stories. So not trying to replace the movie experience, but rather creating something that you can’t deliver with traditional 2-D media.
And certainly we’re applying film making techniques in creating these experiences, but we’re also incorporating game mechanics and other things that are coming from video games, and thinking about it in many ways — especially location-based — as attractions.
So it’s drawing from lots of different industries, so one of the things that’s really important in the more traditional space is this idea of having this direct relationship to consumers, which you don’t have with movies. That relationship is between the theatre and the movie go-er. Companies like Netflix and Amazon and others who have this direct relationship to their consumers. And of course Disney has announced that they too are going to go down that kind of path.
And what I think is incredibly exciting about that is it actually allows for a different and deeper connection to your fans. And I think that we will… One of the things that I’m hoping is eventually we’ll be able to serve up immersive experience that compliment either the film or television-like experiences on that kind of platform.
Kaitlin Milliken: A lot of the immersive experience is technology driven. When your team is working with a new piece of tech, what does that process look like?
Vicki Dobbs Beck: We always say at ILMxLAB that, “Creativity leads and technology enables.” So one of the things we try to do from the very beginning is have a clear understanding of what kind of creative experience we’re trying to deliver. Then we find out what technologies we need in order to be able to deliver that.
That said, because these are interactive experiences they are highly iterative between kind of a more traditional approach that you might take with a film for example where you might sit down and you’d write a script, etcetera. We try to really tighten the iteration loop between the story and the interactivity.
We might start with something like a treatment. And then do what we call gray boxing or rapid prototyping to try to figure out like what is interesting and unique that can be done in virtual reality. You know another example is, we just did an experiment. So in addition to doing full on projects, we try to also do what we call innovation experiments, and we generally share those experiences out into the world, because we have decided consciously to iterate in public.
Because we really want… It’s so early in the industry that we as a pioneer want to kind of share our learnings and experiences with other people who are interested in pioneering in this space.
So we created a project with Magic Leap called “Project Porg.” And that’s a case where what we were trying to do was really develop an experience where you invite characters into your world.
So first of all we were working with brand new technology, right? Magic Leap mixed reality glasses are really just coming out and mostly in the hands of developers. So, you know that has its own challenges which is really understanding what the capabilities of the device are and figuring out how to design an experience that really takes advantage of its strengths. And one of the things we realized in the case of mixed reality is that there was an opportunity for intimacy with characters. You can get that with VR, but VR really is… Scope and scale is so much its power. And you definitely have a relationship with characters, but its in another world. There’s something actually really different and special about having characters in your world. So we are constantly weaving in and out of that. What are the technology opportunities and needs? And what is the creative experience we’re trying to deliver?
Kaitlin Milliken: Hyper-reality really brings the story closer to the customer. Can you talk about how you work with end users to get feedback?
Vicki Dobbs Beck: So because we’re in such a new space, it’s not like you go down… You don’t necessarily follow a classic product development path, where you see a consumer need and you fill it. Rather, what we’re trying to do is create an entirely new kind of experience and then kind of adapt or tweak that experience to be truly compelling to the consumer.
We do a lot of consumer testing, to make sure the consumer actually enjoys the experience, that they understand the experience, that they understand what they’re supposed to do with the experience. And then we tweak accordingly.
In contrast to maybe focus testing that’s done on a film, sometimes done on a film towards the end, this is all about getting people inside the headset experiencing the project and then trying to adapt accordingly.
Kaitlin Milliken: You’re building something new, and sometimes working with new ideas has a lot of rough patches. Can you talk about any roadblocks that you faced and how your team worked through them?
Vicki Dobbs Beck: Well, there’s like different kinds of roadblocks, right? We are always learning what works and doesn’t work in these new mediums. But it’s really important to go through the process of trying so you can learn, so as an example in VR at least at this point in time, because its so new to people, it is so deeply impactful and so visceral, that it turns out that people can absorb very much dialogue. Because their brain is really trying to you know explore and discover the world that they’ve been put into.
So for example when we were developing Vader Immortal, which is still in production, we did this test where we had Vader walk toward you and really connect with you in terms of eye sight. He had some dialogue. And people were so overwhelmed by having Darth Vader in front of them in all of his power and glory that they never heard what he said.
So that’s an example of the kinds of stuff we’re constantly learning. I’m not saying that’s a roadblock as much as it is learning that you just have to adjust for.
Kaitlin Milliken: For my final question, I want to do a little bit of forecasting. Where do you see the entertainment industry heading in the future?
Vicki Dobbs Beck: I really believe in this idea of connected stories and immersive universes. Certainly, Star Wars has always had these connected stories across different platforms so whether its for comic books, for television, for film, or even consumer products. I think that is going to expand in terms of what kinds of experiences that we can deliver.
And I talked a little bit about this idea of moving from storytelling, which is sort of a one way experience, to story-living, where the craft of creating these experiences will be about developing very rich worlds and then inhabiting them with very compelling characters. And then the journey really becomes yours about how you experience that world, how you experience those characters, and the stories that unfold around that.
So I believe in this idea of immersive universes not so much as the meta-verse, which often times people go to. But rather a persistent place that has many portals of entry, a part of what’s gonna make that possible and compelling is having this more direct relationship with consumers so that we really understand what that word needs to be and what those experiences need to be in order to be compelling.
Kaitlin Milliken: At the end of the day, the future of entertainment may not be in a galaxy far far away. It’s right around the corner.
You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Vicki Dobbs Beck for sharing her insights.
Check out innovationleader.com/podcast for highlights from Vicki’s keynote. For more future forecasting from corporate innovators, buy a ticket for our 2019 impact conference. It’s in San Francisco this October. Visit impact.innovationleader.com for more information.
We’re taking a break next week. Until next time, rate and review us on Apple Podcast. Thanks for listening and see you soon.