Yesterday, I stood on Tatooine, under two suns, and watched the Millennium Falcon land. This was the first-ever demo of Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine, the new virtual reality “experience” from Industrial Light and Magic’s ILMxLab. It was awesome—and then I got to swing a lightsaber.
To test out Trials on Tatooine, I put on an HTC Vive headset and a pair of headphones, and found myself standing in the middle of space. The ILMxLab developers handed me a controller. Soon a familiar text crawl was scrolling through the space right in front of me—all about Luke Skywalker trying to create a new Jedi Order. In Trials on Tatooine, you play a young padawan whom Luke has sent to his homeworld on a mission.
The Millennium Falcon soars right over you, through space, and then flies towards a familiar-looking reddish planet.
Soon, you’re on Tatooine, standing under those two familiar suns. The Falcon lands pretty much on top of you—so close I almost thought it was going to smush me for a second. The Falcon opens and R2D2 comes out. You hear the voice of Han Solo, telling you to help Artoo fix something on the Falcon, which you do with the game controller. Just in time, too—two TIE fighters swoop down to attack, and the Falcon shoots them down.
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(Incidentally, when you hear the voice of Han Solo, that’s not Harrison Ford—it’s Ross Marquand, The Walking Dead cast member and celebrity impressionist. But Marquand sounds so close to the real thing, you’d swear it was Ford back for one last go-round.)
The Falcon takes off, leaving you and R2D2 behind. Your mission is to protect R2D2—but at least R2D2 pops out a present that Luke has left for you: a lightsaber (which the game controller turns into).
A squad of stormtroopers attack, shooting at you, and you have to use the lightsaber to deflect their blasters—ideally with good enough reflexes to hit the troopers with their own ricochets. That’s the main element of gameplay in the whole demo, apart from the somewhat desultory “fixing the Millennium Falcon” sequence earlier on.
I tried attacking R2D2 with the lightsaber, but he just scooted backwards out of my reach.
Trials on Tatooine is a cool proof of concept, with just a hint of story and interactivity. But the visuals, and the sense of actually standing on Tatooine and interacting with R2D2, and swinging a lightsaber to deflect blaster bolts, were magic. The graphics looked crisp and lovely, and the environment was surprisingly immersive. ILMxLab has created its own proprietary build of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4, and I was blown away by the way a whole room was transformed into an alien planetscape.
“VR was almost made for holding lightsabers, so that’s what we’re doing,” Lucasfilm CTO Rob Bredow told reporters from the 2016 Game Developers Conference before we got to see the demo.
Trials on Tatooine was intended as a proof of concept, which started out with just seeing if they could make the Falcon take off and land, according to ILMxLab Executive In Charge Vicki Dobbs Beck, who talked to me in an exclusive interview after I tried the VR experience.
The same Story Group that works on the Star Wars movies, TV show, and other stories, is also working on developing immersive experiences for the ILMxLab, according to John Gaeta, creative director of new media and experiences. They’re working on developing new Star Wars stories through 2020, with big arcs connecting lots of different properties, and ideally everything they create will be part of the same story—so when you go into one thing, all the other stuff you’ve seen will add more context and resonance to it.
The goal is not just to create one short little experience, but to create an episodic story that carries across a lot of segments. “What we’ve been doing all this year long is working out all these component pieces that we’re going to be applying to a greater story,” said Gaeta, who’s part of the Star Wars Story Group.
They’re still figuring out how many of these immersive virtual things are going to be games, and how many will just be interactive stories—because you can have interactivity without gameplay. These experiences may be somewhat social, too, and there could be “episodes” of a story, taking place in the same VR world. But in between those episodes, you could be allowed to remain in the virtual world, interacting with the environment and maybe each other.
And that tantalizing reference to Luke’s New Jedi Order, which he tried to found after Return of the Jedi? Gaeta and Dobbs wouldn’t tell me much about what they have in mind for telling that story, but there’s definitely tons of unexplored territory in the Star Wars universe. And there’s no timeframe, or definite plan, for them to have a product ready for consumers—for now, they’re just creating the building blocks for something in the future.
The ILMxLab, created in 2015, was already involved in creating a few other experiments, including the Force Awakens immersive 360 visual experience, which lets you zoom around Jakku, a real-time motion-capture demo, and Jakku Spy, a Google Cardboard adventure that lets you explore the planet Jakku. They’re also working with Imagineering on developing stuff for the new Star Wars theme parks.
According to Dobbs, Jakku Spy was his team’s first attempt at “episodic VR,” which helped make people aware of some of the details of Rey’s home before The Force Awakens came out. The ILMxLab wants to create more things like that to help expand the world of all the other Star Wars movies. (Of course the famously secretive J.J. Abrams, who worked with them on Jakku Spy, was concerned about revealing too much, which is a constant concern.)
ILMxLab also worked on a real-time graphics tool that would let you see a story from all sorts of angles, as Bredow explained to reporters. He showed us a demo where stormtroopers are searching for R2D2 and C-3PO, and demonstrated how you could view the scene from all sorts of angles—including the POV of one of the stormtroopers—and even discover what’s happening elsewhere in the scene at the exact same moment. You could even steal a speeder and fly off into the distance, discovering an AT-AT involved in a battle and a bunch of other stuff.
Gareth Edwards, director of the upcoming Star Wars movie Rogue One, used a similar technology to “virtually scout”some of the locations in the film that hadn’t been built yet, Bredow said. Edwards was able to put on a headset and look around as if he was standing in a real set, and his response was, “This is better than real life.” According to Bredow, the filmmakers actually designed a few pieces of the set in response to Edwards’ reactions.
Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that the VR experience was based on Imagine’s 3D engine.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, which is available now. Here’s what people have been saying about it. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.