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Star Wars Goes Virtual Reality with New ILMxLAB Experience

Get ready to practice your virtual lightsaber skills: Lucasfilm and its visual effects unit Industrial Light and Magic took a first step toward bringing the “Star Wars” universe to virtual reality (VR) this week with the unveiling of the “Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine” VR experience.

“Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine” is a room-scale VR experience that makes use of the HTC Vive headset to let users walk around within a 15×15 foot space to explore the surface of a planet, and do some basic maintenance on an out-of-shape Millennium Falcon. R2-D2 also makes an appearance, and at the end, the user has to fight off a bunch of attacking Stormtroopers with a lightsaber.

Lucasfilm’s R&D unit ILMxLab showed off “Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine” to a small group of journalists in San Francisco on Monday, and the company may eventually bring it to other select audiences as well — but the whole project is still an experiment, explained Lucasfilm CTO Rob Bredow during an interview after a hands-on demo of the experience. “This is great for learning from,” he said. The ultimate goal, however, is to build much larger and longer-lasting experiences to ship to consumers.

That focus on learning also makes it possible to experiment with aspects that aren’t immediately available to consumers once they get their hands on high-end VR headsets in the coming months. VR games and experiences typically require users to wear headphones, but “Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine” was shown in a room with a surround-sound system. And when the Millennium Falcon landed, one could feel a sudden gust of wind.

Appealing to all senses this way — be it the wind or the bass that you feel all around you — is almost a throwback to traditional imagineering, as it has been used in theme parks for decades. “It’s a simple trick — blow some wind at people,” Bredow said.

ILMxLab purposely decided to mix traditional imagineering with VR to take immersion one step further, and Bredow hinted at possibilities to one day use this for what he called “location-based entertainment,” which could combine touch and other senses with visual immersion through VR headsets. “It seems like haptics are kind of a superpower for VR,” he said.

ILMxLab has been experimenting with different forms of VR and augmented reality for some time, as well as shown off “Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine” to a bunch of insiders. The latter taught Bredow and his team to not overburden users with gimmicky mini games or a too complicated backstory. “The simpler the better is one of the things we learned,” he said.

Giving users a chance to relax and immerse themselves is especially important while they’re still getting used to virtual reality as a medium, argued Bredow. “Maybe our vocabulary can expand over time,” he said.

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