Hidden in plain sight between an art gallery and a gourmet cupcake shop, The Void’s virtual reality experience at Downtown Disney is one of the best VR experiences currently available to consumers. From the outside it’s a set of glass doors that open onto a small, crowded lobby with none of the style that Disney incorporates to lure people to enter. To the side of the door is a window display of monitors showing Stormtroopers and some Star Wars motifs, but nothing specific. The reflections on the glass make their presentation blend into the architecture. The crowd management in the lobby makes it look a shambles that rebuffs the casual passers-by. Realistically, this low key appearance serves their purpose because tickets are sold out for months in advance with none available at the venue.
The proper name for the experience is “Star Wars™: Secrets of the Empire by ILMxLAB and The VOID”. For $30 one person gets an experience that lasts about 25 minutes, with 15 of those being in virtual reality and the balance being prepped or photographed with the VR gear. They work batches of people through in groups of four and if you’re not part of a full group then they add others to it. My group of six was broken into a group of four and a group of two, and the two had a couple of strangers added to their group. It felt very much like they were trying to fill a roller coaster car to maximum capacity. The real question that needs to be asked is about the price tag: is an experience this short worth the money?
The experience begins with each person agreeing to a liability waiver and receiving instructions on how to behave inside The Void. From there you move into a darkened room and choose your avatar and receive mission objectives and then you move into the dressing room. As you approach the dressing room you see the party before you emerge in their VR gear. That was my first bit of giddiness during the experience. The dressing room itself was my second bit. Turning the corner, my eyes beheld a futuristic ready room where people don military gear to fight for their banners. At first glance it really felt like something from the movies Pacific Rim or Starship Troopers. The VR rigs are suspended in red-lit bays where all you need to do is stand under a helmet and slip your arms into its matching vest. The vests clip closed in the front. If you’re too big around for the clips to meet, like me, then they have “hyper straps” that they provide to add length to the clip straps. I’m a big guy and my group had other big people in it, some with guts and others with busts, and all of us were successful in clipping the vests closed. Once you’re geared up they give some further instruction and then march you into your starting position. It’s worth noting that they have lockers to stash purses and purchases in the dressing room.
When my visor went down and the virtual reality began I was struck with an overpowering feeling of delight. Immediately it was Star Wars. Before I even thought to look around I was grinning. I could see the three other guys in my party. They were moving in real time. I could see my hands, though I wasn’t wearing anything on my hands nor was I holding anything. It’s completely free and untethered movement throughout the experience, with all degrees of freedom. This allows you to duck and hide behind things (or other players, bwahaha) as you would in real life. There’s only a brief moment of acclimation before the story begins and they hustle you around. As you play you encounter props that you can hold and manipulate; you see them virtually and when you reach out to touch them you really feel them. They use a variety of environmental effects beyond just props to further sell the experience, such as rumbles and heat. Those effects, combined with being able to physically touch other players and walls, provides an exceptionally strong sense of presence. Once you’re moving around you feel slightly rushed, but it feels natural with the story; Star Wars is full of action and so is this VR experience. The story itself is straightforward and easy to follow. I don’t know if it’s possible to die or for the story to stall, although there are opportunities for both to occur. The experience is also not a game, per se; they don’t give you stats to compare to your friends. There is no indication of how many times you were on the giving or the receiving ends of a blaster shot.
There is a limit on the magic. You don’t have a complete body and you can’t see your feet. Every time you raise your hand into your field of view it takes a moment to render. There is some screen judder. There is a bit of misalignment between reaching to touch something and actually touching it. Sometimes you can reach through something that you see. The virtual reality isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s still the best and most audacious that I’ve experienced. Whatever shortcomings the experience has can’t be placed on The Void, but rather assigned to the fact that VR is still in early days. This is as good as it gets at the consumer level right now.
When you’ve finished the experience there’s a camera poised to take a group shot. Much like the rides inside of Disneyland, The Void wants to sell you a picture of you and your friends taken while you’re still riding high and wearing the gear. Near their camera there’s also an opening to the lobby; I saw the wife of one of the strangers in my group getting photographed by his wife with her in the lobby and him right near me. We came out of the experience full of happiness, adrenaline, and sweat, so it was back to the locker room where staff would clean everything between uses while we all crowed about our experiences. From there we all met up in the lobby to buy our photos and compare notes on how we all liked it.
We are a mixed group in some regards. The Star Wars nerds among us loved what we just did. The VR nerds among us loved what we just did. I’m in both of those categories and as soon as it ended I wanted to go again. My wife, who is prone to headaches, got a nasty one from the experience and needed to sit. The others were satisfied with the experience but didn’t gush. After an informal survey of my friends it was clear that those of us who are more into Star Wars and VR found the $30 price to be completely worth it (I’m already scheming to return), while the others were okay to pay it but felt it should have cost less. It’s a lot of money for such a short amount of time. I think it was a very good move to place this attraction outside of the theme park so that it can command this price. If it were in Disneyland where people could line up again and again, I think the line would be eternally long. It’s already a gripe of mine that VR experiences in public places, even with limited entry, have very slow moving lines. The appointment system they have in place is a good way to keep the line moving and the $30 price tag, considering the event is sold out months in advance, is a pretty good indication that they’re know what they’re selling and to whom. The Force is strong with this experience.