For many movie fans, being able to suit up and participate in a “Star Wars”-themed adventure sounds like the ultimate fantasy. But through a partnership between Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB and The Void, a virtual reality startup based in Utah, it’s now a reality in more than a dozen cities around the world.
“We wanted to be pioneers, and our goal was to enable people to literally be able to step inside our stories,” said Vicki Dobbs Beck, Executive-in-Charge at ILMxLAB. Launched in 2015, ILMxLAB is part of Disney-owned Lucasfilm. The group is working to help the entertainment industry shift from “storytelling to storyliving,” in Beck’s words, by creating immersive experiences using virtual reality, augmented reality, and other emerging technologies. Beck was among the mainstage speakers at InnoLead’s Impact gathering in Boston this fall.
One of ILMxLab’s first projects, “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” invites participants to don a VR headset, backpack, and special vest, transforming them into rebels disguised as Stormtroopers. With a group of friends, participants explore several connected “real world” spaces, but they see digital environments and other characters around them. Transducers in the floor make the ground rumble. Fans, heaters, and scent generators simulate the lava fields of Planet Mustafar. There are physical blasters to be picked up and used in firefights. Characters, including Darth Vader, interact with visitors. ILMxLab calls the combination of technologies “hyper-reality.”
Building Immersive Stories
While filmmakers have had over a hundred years to perfect their art, immersive stories require new elements and technologies.
“In approaching this experience, we acknowledge it was something different,” Beck said. “This was not a film, not a game, and not theme park attraction. But we could learn from all of these.”
To accelerate that learning, Lucasfilm set up the ILMxLab. Beck discussed the choice of name, and the business expectations surrounding it: “The word ‘lab’ we use to acknowledge that we needed to learn and discover. That has caused some confusion. To many, lab means purely experimental and a cost center. But we actually have a P&L. The ‘X’ stands for many things, in addition to evoking an X-wing fighter: experience, experiment, excite, explore, expand.”
According to Beck, virtual reality involves two major elements: presence and connectivity. “It’s the idea of the power of being there, which is really about world-building and place-making,” she said.
Location-based entertainment, like “Secrets of the Empire,” bridge the physical world and the virtual world. For example, if a participant were to reach out and touch a wall in the story, they would feel a wall in the physical space. “That one-to-one mapping causes your brain to almost immediately buy into the reality of where you are,” Beck said.
Beck also focused on the power of connection.
“Immersion provides a unique opportunities to interact with characters. If they respond to you in a compelling and meaningful way, it opens up entirely new possibilities,” she said. “Ultimately, the goal is to for the character and your relationship to have persistence.”ILMxLAB also works with augmented reality, sometimes also called “mixed reality.” In Project Porg, an experience designed for the Magic Leap One headset, users have the opportunity to train and build a relationship with the intergalactic, bird-like creatures in their own homes.
“The power of connection comes not only from interacting with virtual characters, but also the connection you feel with your family and friends,” Beck said.
Challenges at ILMxLAB and Passive Storytelling
After her keynote presentation, Beck responded to questions from InnoLead Editor and CEO Scott Kirsner and audience members.
When asked about some of the challenges leading new initiatives within a company as innovative as Disney, Lucasfilm’s parent company, Beck responded: “[Innovating] can still be challenging … [when you’re working horizontally] and the organization is structured in business units.”
However, she said that her team has strong collaborations with their colleagues at Disney, and a visionary CEO in Bob Iger. According to Beck, Disney’s Imagineering department — which oversees the company’s theme parks, resorts, and cruise ships — has become a noteworthy collaborator.
“They were actually very interested in what experiences outside of the parks might look like, but that wasn’t their strength,” Beck said. Hundreds of people need to be able to move through a theme park attraction each hour, she continued, but building smaller-scale, location-based experiences involves a different business model and different marketing. “The great thing about location-based experience is that people get it. People get a ticket. If they had a great experience, they bring back their friends, or they go again, or they talk about it.”
Location-based experiences from ILMxLAB brings the Star Wars experience beyond the gates of Disney’s parks to Downtown Disney and even shopping centers.
Beck also discussed the whether these virtual reality and mixed reality experiences will make people more isolated in their homes. She believes there are opportunities to do the opposite. “One of our missions needs to be….stories that require you to get out. As a simple example … imagine a world where there would be mixed reality overlays in a theme park, and you’re doing that with your family and friends.”
ILMxLAB’s latest hyper-reality experience, “Ralph Breaks VR,” debuted on November 21. It takes viewers into the digital universe of the movie, “Wreck-It-Ralph.” Upcoming projects include “Vader Immortal,” a three-part VR series slated for release in 2019.