Polyblog: Revealing Secrets of the Empire
This Christmas, I finally got a chance to experience The Void's "hyper reality" attraction at Disney Springs in Orlando. Hyper reality is their term for how they match your physical surroundings to your virtual environment, allowing you to touch virtual objects like walls and benches. I had been dying to try this since I first heard of The Void, and the fact that they opened up shop at Disney a couple weeks before Christmas was perfect since my family was going there for the holidays. You might say it was... destiny (Snoke face). Read on to learn all about it!
First, I want to go over The Void itself, my experience there, and how its' tech compares to my VR experience as a Vive owner. If you don't care so much about how the magic happens, and just want to hear about the experience itself, skip ahead to the "Secrets of the Empire" section.
The Void's Orlando location took over portion of what used to be a very large toy store at Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney). When I showed up, there were two lines at the door. One was for people with tickets to check in, and the other was for people looking to buy tickets. Already I was surprised at how busy the place seemed. I was also really nervous because my ticket was for 4:00pm, and I showed up at about 3:52 not expecting there to be a wait. I managed to check in with a couple minutes to spare, and then went to stand in the line for people waiting to enter The Void.
When I got in line, the attendant noticed I was a party of 1, so she had me jump to the front of the line to join another group that had 3 people. Sven, Erik, and Hannah (I don't know if I'm spelling those correctly) were from Germany and worked at Disney's EPCOT, and were my impromptu squad for the mission ahead.
First we entered a room with 4 tablets and a large projection screen on each side of the room. Two squads enter the room together, each taking one side of the room. Here, you watch a message from Captain Andor outlining the purpose of your mission. You're tasked with going undercover as stormtroopers to find out what's in a peculiar piece of cargo that the Empire has in its' possession. Then you get to select a color for your stormtrooper's armor accents to help you tell who is who when you're in VR.
After we exited this room, we waited in a hallway for a few minutes while the groups ahead of us were suited up for their adventure. When it was our turn, we walked into an area that had 4 vests and headsets hanging on the wall. You put the vests on while they're still hanging from the hook, and buckle about 5 different buckles on the front. The attendant then instructs you to pull a few straps to make the vest nice and tight, before unhooking the vest. The picture below is not actually the same as what I saw, but it gives you an idea of how it looked.
The vest has a computer built into the back to run the software, and has several force feedback modules that allow you to feel when, and where, you get shot. The attendant said that we'd feel about an additional 10 or 15 pounds of weight when he unhooked the vest, but honestly, I think the thing was so tight and compact, that I didn't feel much difference. I did have some discomfort in my shoulders, however, where the edge of the fairly rigid vest rubbed against some bones in my shoulder. Nothing worth complaining about though.
Next, we got a quick tutorial for the headsets, and put those on. The headsets are quite a bit larger than a Vive or Rift, but thanks to some smart design, they're actually quite comfortable. The headsets had 2 straps to adjust; one near the base of your skull, and one at the crown. Each adjusts with one knob similar to the Vive's deluxe audio strap, so I had the headset on and comfortable within a few seconds. The headset connects to the PC on your back with a short cable, which I never noticed the entire time I was there.
The attendant had us flip our visors up so we could see, then escorted us to a small room. This was part of the physical space we'd use for our virtual adventure. The walls were about 7 feet tall, and the top was open like a maze. We were then instructed to flip our visors down, make sure we could see and hear each other, and give a thumbs up if everything was good.
When I flipped the visor down, it took me a second or two to adjust it to the sweet spot where the image was clearest. As far as I know, there were no adjustments for moving the lenses within the headset, so it's a one-size-fits-all design. This is probably for the best in this type of setting. My impression of the headset was that it had an FOV roughly similar to the Vive, which is about 100 degrees. This means there are noticeable black areas in your peripheral vision, but that's pretty standard for VR headsets right now. I never noticed any screen door effect, which leads me to believe their screens are higher resolution than the Vive, or perhaps just a different type of display. In any case, the picture was nice and clear.
Secrets of the Empire
Where Sven, Erik, and Hannah had been standing, I now saw my fellow stormtroopers. We each checked that we could hear each other, and then gave a thumbs up. Thanks to a Leap Motion hand tracker on the front of the visor, you could actually see your hands in VR. I could hear my squad mates giggling, obviously impressed with the tech. A door then opened on one of the walls, and we were instructed to board a ship on the other side.
K-2SO was waiting for us on board, and instructed us to take a seat on a long bench. In my learned mistrust of virtual objects, I reached out to make sure the bench was really there before I sat down. There was another AI trooper piloting the ship that gave us some details for our mission. We then waited to board a skiff that would take us from the ship to the base on the planet.
We sat there waiting for a couple minutes, and the pilot informed us a couple of times that there was a delay with the skiff. I'm pretty sure this was a designed holding pattern in case the group ahead of us was taking too long, or if something else wasn't quite ready yet. While we were waiting, I could hear noises being picked up by the microphones in our headsets. Specifically, it sounded like I could hear several people talking, and a kid yelling. I only noticed these sounds in this particular area, probably because there were very little in-game sounds at the time.
Finally, the floating skiff pulled up alongside our ship, and a platform extended. We walked across the platform onto the skiff, high above the lava planet of Mustafar. As the skiff pulled away from the ship, and toward the base, I could feel the skiff vibrating slightly under my feet, and I could feel warmth from the lava below. Once the skiff landed, we walked across another platform, and entered the base.
We walked down a corridor where we entered a small room with some blasters on the wall. I reached out and grabbed one, and told my squad mates to do the same. This is where something a little weird happened. There were four of us, but only 3 guns. Poor Hannah was left out. I reached out toward the wall, and I could feel the fourth blaster even though I couldn't see it. From my experience with the Vive, I know sometimes things don't show up if they're not tracking correctly, so I thought if I pulled it off the wall, perhaps the trackers would pick it up. I handed it to Hannah, who grabbed it, but the blaster was still invisible.
We then got instructions to go back the way we came, where we encountered some resistance. I actually couldn't see down the hall, but I saw Sven and Erik blasting something. We then made our way through different areas of the base, entering different rooms, crossing platforms, and going down elevators. Along the way, we encountered several groups of stormtroopers, having firefights reminiscent of the battles on board the Death Star in A New Hope. Each shot of my blaster could be felt as the gun vibrated in my hand, and each time I got hit could be felt thanks to the haptic feedback in my vest.
One thing I noticed about the blasters is that the bolts traveled a bit slow. This seems to serve 2 purposes: first, it makes it easier for you to dodge incoming fire because you have a couple seconds to react, and second, it allows your own bolts to have a bit of aim assist as they travel toward your target. I didn't feel the aim assist was overkill - I still managed to miss several shots - but I feel like the slow blaster bolts takes away a bit of the oomph of the blaster. If you watch blaster fire in a Star Wars movie, the bolts travel extremely fast, and usually land in a spray of sparks when it hits a target. In Secrets of the Empire, you can watch a bolt travel toward it's target, and the impact just didn't feel as satisfying.
As a comparison, I've been playing Fallout 4 VR using a laser pistol, and the blasts out of that are instant, making the gun feel really responsive. And since there's no aim assist, landing great shots feels really satisfying because you know you did it with skill. But in any case, the combat in Secrets was still fun, and I realize they have to account for all skill levels in their design.
After a while, we finally found the cargo we were looking for. There was then one final firefight with a bit of an epic conclusion that I don't want to spoil for anyone, but the experience definitely ended with a bang.
The experience cost $30, and took about 30 minutes. My rough estimate is that there was about 15 minutes getting geared up, and about 15 minutes actually in VR. I think it was totally worth it. I think everyone should experience it at least once. I think those experienced in VR will get a kick out of the added physical aspect, and those without any VR experience will probably have their minds blown.
If I could make a couple constructive criticisms, though, I'd say the physical spaces felt a little cramped for 4 people. Several times, I felt like I was either getting in the way of my squad mates, or I couldn't get in on the action because they were in my way. Due to the limited FOV of the headset, and the small spaces, you often don't even see your teammates. I'd love to see The Void expand their spaces a bit. I'd also like to see them change up their blaster effects a bit. I understand the bad guys need to shoot a bit slower so you can dodge, but I think they could speed up your own fire to make it feel more responsive.
When we went back to take off all our gear, I informed a couple different employees about Hannah's broken blaster. She had spent the whole time just watching the rest of us blast everything. They were very apologetic, but didn't really offer any compensation. Hannah herself seemed bummed, but wasn't really pressing the issue. I, though, wasn't going to let this go. I told the attendant that she should get a free ticket or something to make up for it. He was non-committal about anything, but went and got someone who seemed like a manager. He offered to let us all do the whole thing again for free. Unfortunately, I couldn't join Sven, Erik, and Hannah as I had family waiting for me, but I left knowing I did a good deed for my squaddies.
The Void seems like it would be even more fun with your real life friends, but I still had a good time with my German mates. If you guys are reading this, thanks for letting me experience Secrets of the Empire with you!