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“I was blown away. You just have to experience it,” a friend told me after leaving Westfield mall in Shepherds Bush. He was not, however, flabbergasted by the luxury retail experience. He was waxing lyrical about Star Wars: Secrets of The Empire, a ‘hyper reality’ experience from Lucasfilm, ILMxLAB and The VOID, nestled near the centre’s cinema complex.

I hadn’t witnessed such enthusiasm for an entertainment experience for a long time, both anecdotally, and on social media.

After experiencing the gamified VR game for myself, it struck me, like many of the commentators in this feature, that this could be a ‘tipping point’ for the medium. 

Secrets of The Empire was timed to coincide with the release of the penultimate Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. And, while cinema tickets for the blockbuster film retailed at around a tenner a pop, customers were falling over themselves to pay £30 for the virtual reality experience.

The premise of the simulation’s narrative is simple. Well sort of. You, and your team of four, don interactive suits and VR goggles to enter a galaxy far, far away where, under the orders of the budding rebellion, you travel to the molten planet of Mustafar to recover Imperial intelligence vital to the rebellion’s survival.

Disguised as stormtroopers, your team must navigate through an enemy facility alongside the pragmatic – and frankly lovable – droid K-2S0. There’s stuff to shoot, puzzles to solve, and even giant lava monsters.

Vital to the experience being believable is using technology creatively, (Anna Valley owner) Shooting Partners’ head of facilities Shaun Wilton told Access. “The Star Wars VR experience does a few things especially well. The concept of layering was great. They handled the 3D
depth cues perfectly, and the audio comes from different
directions convincingly, prompting you to turn your head. If you hear a scream, or breaking glass.

“Another smart trick was using heaters when the participants encounter the lava. Your suit even vibrates when you’re hit. It’s very clever and taps into additional revenue to take the movie experience further.”

This isn’t the first VR movie tie-in to take experiential into the multiplexes, Adrian Leu, CEO of Inition, told Access. “There’s a few cinema chains looking at this model very seriously including IMAX. We previously hired a ‘wing suit simulator’ and motion platform to simulate wing suit flight as a tie-in with the movie remake of Point Break. The experience, organised by Warner Brothers, was aimed at re-creating a scene where the characters take a 21,000 foot skydive. It attracted more than 200 people over three days at Westfield.”

With creative projects such as this garnering praise, Hollywood seems ready to embrace VR wholeheartedly. Director Steven Spielberg reportedly said upcoming film Ready Player One – set in a VR obsessed world – will do for VR what Jurassic Park did for dinosaurs.

The film’s pop culture referencing action is set to be far more utopian to prior depictions of VR, such as the Wachowski’s The Matrix, which showed a nightmarish vision of a virtual world. For Wilton, the manner in which VR is promoted could be crucial to its long-term success.

He says: “As a super fan you can now pay to take things a step further. A trap that content producers can fall into however, is thinking that everything they make has to be fantastical and over the top. Avatar, for example, flipped expectations on the medium of 3D films. Its effects were subtle and in the background.

“Those creating VR content have a responsibility at this early stage not to scare off customers. Putting a 360 camera on a rollercoaster is a mistake. It can cause people to be damning to that entire technology. Shock tactics can have a lasting negative effect.”

Thankfully, more consumer-friendly examples are already proving successful at moulding expectations. Topshop, for example, allowed people to access its official catwalk show in Turbine Hall. Production company Inition pulled in multiple media streams of the live environment, including two streams of live HD from the front row and backstage.

Positional 3D sound and live tweets also featured in the experience – these were written on autumnal leaves and dropped into the footage by a ‘helpful crow’. A time-lapse of the set build and 360° stills was also brought into the environment so that viewers could explore 360° selfies taken by celebs and backstage.

Several hundred people experienced the show on-demand in the days following the event. Topshop’s feedback was glowing. “We couldn’t have asked for better results,” says Sheena Sauvaire, global marketing and communications director, Topshop. “Inition pulled off a great job.”

Wilton adds that some truly emotionally resonant content has been made for VR. “For ROAR London, we embraked on a project to help people with bereavements. They produced some very powerful content in which you were a member of a family that has experienced loss. It portrayed a ‘before loss’ and ‘after loss’ scene.

“Animation studio Aardman [and the BBC] meanwhile, made a VR experience set in a boat in which you are surrounded by refugees. BBC interview dialogues were used by the cartoony looking characters. I’m telling you, ten seconds in and you want out! The empathy it generates is powerful. You put a device on your face and you are in a new world. They speak directly to you.”

Leu says that VR has equal potential to provide relaxing, emotional and beautiful experiences. He points to Inition’s activity in Burj Khalifa, Dubai, as well as the Shard Viewing Gallery, London: two venues which were enhanced by very different virtual reality experiences.

At the Burj Khalifa, VR users paid up to £98 (Dh500) to head up to levels 124 and 125 of the tower to enter into one of seven VR pods. A mission commander provided instructions while riding the elevator in VR mode to the 160th level. Users experienced the gravity-defying ride up, which was gamified by collecting suction globes to ascent to the spire. Once up top, the next step is grabbing the parachute for a free-fall experience into the dancing fountains.

Meanwhile, The Shard, London’s tallest building, charged visitors around £25 for ‘Vertigo’, a virtual adventure which travels back in time to The Shard’s construction. VR guests follow Romeo the fox while taking instructions from the construction foreman to build the iconic tower.

Patrick Allen, CEO of The View from The Shard said: “As the tallest attraction in the UK, we are always looking for new ways to offer exciting and innovative experiences for our visitors. The consumer technology space has been an area we’ve been keen to explore for a while and we are excited to be working with the design companies behind the VR, Happy Finish and Inition to introduce these two new adventures to the attraction’s visitors.”

Of course, the level of production required to create VR content is often higher than the more linear world of video. “A package often starts at £1,500 for a day with a Nokia Ozo camera setup, but it is pro level with post production and a qualified technician,” says Wilton.

“360 degree video is basically a ‘ball of video’, but you don’t need a headset on your face. It can be viewed on a flatscreen phone. VR is created to be immersive. It’s a teleporter. It takes you to a totally different place. That can be where you could be in reality, or a place of the content creator’s imagination.

“VR is a time machine. You can be in the middle of something set way back or far forward in time. Its third, quite extraordinary, power is to change you temporarily. You are a different person while you are in that VR headset. That’s what the gaming and event industry wants. Put the headset on and you are Batman.”

Looking to the future of VR, Stephen Bowman, managing director at VR Centre, says that various consumer technologies are converging to bring mass adoption, and a cheaper price point for entry-level events. “Location-based software is improving, while mobile devices’ processing power is increasing rapidly. Meanwhile, 6 DoF technology [referring to freedom of movement of a rigid body in three-dimensional space] is set to be rolled out, allowing for real time location and interaction.”

Leu adds that new headsets from the likes of HTC (CS PRo) and Pixmag are making VR more accessible for events. “Previously there were more limitations. Virtual tennis games for example would not translate to VR because the wires would interfere with human movement. However, a new generation of VR experiences feature wireless headsets and built-in environment measuring technology. Currently, many use physical ‘lighthouses’, which are laser-based positional tracking systems developed by Valve for SteamVR and HTC Vive. These are erected in a dedicated VR area to simulate a physical environment.”

Bowman experienced the Pimax first hand at CES last month. He told Access: “What really impressed me was the 200 degree field of vision they’ve managed achieved, a break from the usual 100 degree field. What’s great about VR from a brand perspective is the concept of time-displacement. People report feeling they were using a VR screen for longer than they actually were, which gives brands the chance to fit in a lot of content and create a real impact in a shorter timespan,” he says.

Most people are now ‘VR aware’, and offerings from Lucasfilm and high street brands have helped cement the range of experiences the technology can offer.  Now, with top Hollywood studios involved, and ever-cheaper at home technology, VR is here to stay. AAA