Outside, San Francisco shimmers in the mid-afternoon sun, light that draws out the pond greens of the bronze Yoda who sleeplessly guards the entrance to Lucasfilm’s headquarters here on One Letterman Drive. Inside, this is a campus of fading opulence, like a five-star hotel of the 1980s, now nudging a four, outpaced by time. The campus’s wide and spongy corridors are studded with glass-encased exhibits: a rubbery foot from a Jurassic Park T-Rex here, a LEGO bust of Star Wars director George Lucas there -- mementoes that contribute to the heavy sense of nostalgia. The canteen where I, and a gaggle of other expectant journalists, now sit was once, surely, the very height of Silicon Valley-style chic. Today it has the vanishing charm of a steam train’s dining cart: dark wood, gleaming cutlery, luxurious curtains. The Golden Gate Bridge’s traffic endlessly scrolls past the widescreen windows.
The campus is not, however, only a monument to past glories. The future is to be found here too, somewhere in its secretive belly. For one, Industrial Light & Magic, the animation studio that has provided visual effects for the company’s films for more than four decades, lives here. And within ILM there’s ILMxLab, a brand new crack unit of tech mavens brought together to investigate the brave new world of virtual reality, our species’ latest and, if we’re to believe the hype, possibly ultimate entertainment frontier. The lab brings together numerous arms of Lucasfilm’s empire. It combines the visual effects expertise of ILM, the real-time graphics technology of the Advanced Development Group, and the audio prowess of Skywalker Sound.
For the past eight months, the team has been working on a 15-minute VR demo set, predictably enough, in the Star Wars universe that, the company hopes, offers a glimpse of one possible future in filmmaking, where you are no longer a mere spectator of the action, but rather an active participant. As Rob Bredow, Lucasfilm’s head of New Media and VP of its Advanced Development Group, put it to me earlier that day, “a new type of cinema.”
And within ILM there’s ILMxLab, a brand new crack unit of tech mavens brought together to investigate the brave new world of virtual reality, our species’ latest and, if we’re to believe the hype, possibly ultimate entertainment frontier.
I’m chaperoned from the canteen by a Lucasfilm employee and through the campus’s various Cold War-era style checkpoints, which flash hyperactive red lights when trespassed through. A passing waitress carrying a tray of canapés offers me a “prawn for the road.” I decline. Shellfish won’t last the journey I’m headed on. We end up in a spacious office, empty but for a humming computer tower in one corner, and a trail of cables plunging from its rear into a Vive headset, the forthcoming virtual reality helmet from HTC and the video game developer Valve, which rests on the floor. I pull on the headset and my guide from ILM picks up one of the Vive’s futuristic-looking controllers. It is shaped a little like a handgun, if you were to hold a handgun by the barrel. While I’m essentially blindfolded by the HMD, I can see the device floating in 3D space as he picks it up and moves it toward me. I reach out and grab it with unexpected precision. The virtual world on the screen falls dark.
Now I’m hovering in space, among a buckshot spattering of stars. That familiar Star Wars crawl of yellow text emerges from beneath my feet. Unlike in the cinema, I can look away to one side and admire the unpainted galaxy, if I grow tired of all the backstory. Finally, a transition. I’m standing, unmistakeably, on the surface of dusty Tatooine, in a clearing bordered by cliffs. On the ground there are markings and lights that describe what appears to be a landing pad. If this were a video game I might press forward on the analogue stick and run around to get a sense of my bearings. But here, in the room-scale scene, the sense of being physically present in an alien landscape is so great and so convincing, that all I can do is tentatively peer around, frozen in an honest state of fight/flight. When I eventually dare to take a step forward, a shimmering wall fades in and out of view a couple of meters in front of me, a useful indicator of where the boundaries lie within the room in which I’m standing.
“We wanted to see what kind of immersive, first person adventure we could create taking advantage of two key virtual reality technologies: ‘room scale’ and the Vive’s controllers,” explains Tim Alexander, visual effects supervisor at ILMxLab, later. “We wanted to let the player walk around the space and interact with objects, not through abstract controllers like a mouse and keyboard. This was an experiment to try out some storytelling hypotheses.”
In the room-scale scene, the sense of being physically present in an alien landscape is so great and so convincing, that all I can do is tentatively peer around, frozen in an honest state of fight/flight.
Until this point, the storytelling on Tatooine had been environmental. Now, it becomes personal. After a few seconds the lights come on and I hear Han Solo murmur in my ear. He’s coming in hot, he says. The Millennium Falcon darts into view, slows and, finally, hovers and moves to land. I duck during the final few seconds of its descent; fully believing that it would painfully strike my head. A runway on the Falcon’s underbelly prises open with a gassy pishhh. R2D2 trundles down the ramp, chirpily. He is smaller than I imagined, I think, as he rolls up to my feet. Out of nowhere, two tie-fighters scream in overhead. Chewbacca, unseen but definitely heard over the comms channel in my ear, shoots them down using the ship’s blasters. Now there’s some kind of mechanical ship failure and Solo informs me that I need to fix it. I walk over to a panel of lights and switches and begin flicking them on and off according to his instructions. It works.
More problems: incoming stormtroopers from the hills behind. R2D2 hands me a lightsaber. Whenever a new piece of technology comes along (Nintendo Wii; Microsoft’s Kinect and so on) it’s a sure bet that somebody at Lucasarts will try putting a lightsaber in it. That childlike dream of wielding a laser sword has persisted for three decades. It’s a common desire undimmed by the passage of time yet still unmet by the advance of technology. The Vive is the closest we’ve come yet to realising the dream. Stab the button on the controller and the laser beams into life. Turn the weapon on your hand and you can examine its contours. Press the button again and, with ktisssh it shrinks back to nothing in milliseconds. On and off, on and off: the action doesn’t get old. But there is little time to play. The stormtroopers, having arranged themselves behind rocks and barriers, begin firing their blasters. Using nothing but your weapon, you bat away their blaster shots. Angle things correctly and you can rebound the shot at its firer. Eventually, the Falcon’s guns come back online and Solo finishes the job for you. Fade to black.
That childlike dream of wielding a laser sword has persisted for three decades. It’s a common desire undimmed by the passage of time yet still unmet by the advance of technology.
How much of this is fakery, and how much does the experience rely on you being a truly talented young Jedi? “We want the story to be one of heroism, so, in all honesty, there is a little bit of help given to the player when it comes to rebounding those blaster shots,” explains Roger Cordes, Digital Production Supervisor, Lucasfilm Advanced Development Group, after the demo is finished. “It is based on real physics and it’s up to you to deflect the shots. But we give you a really good chance of hitting them. There was a long testing process to get the balance just right and tune the parameters of reality.”
Currently Lucasfilm has not announced any plans to make the demo publically available. But the work has been instrumental in helping the company understand something of the shape and rules of telling stories in VR, which will likely make appearances at theme parks around the world. “It shows our trajectory… where we’re headed to,” says Cordes. “We’re testing the waters of interaction.” The team has learned a great deal through the work, Cordes tells me. “It’s very different to working in film. The way that dialogue feels, and the way that it feels when another character is talking to you in the world was completely unexpected for us.”
It’s certainly memorable and exciting, but doubts remain as to how this kind of heavily scripted experience might scale up to film length. “The limitations of room scale VR as it currently stands informed this particular experience,” says Alexander. “You are standing on a single landing pad. How that scales up remains to be seen.” Despite the questions, those working at ILMxLab appear to be fully convinced that VR is here to stay. Many consumers, however, are less certain. “I think people have to put a headset on and experience it for themselves,” says Alexander. “People maybe have an impression of what VR was like that is 15 years out of date. Maybe they got sick. Now we have the hardware, the software and the engineering to ensure that people don’t get sick.”
“It’s difficult to be told about,” says Cordes. “You have to experience it. Once you believe you are truly in some other place… that’s what pushes people over the finish line.” Cordes is right. I may not have the postcard to prove it, but I will never forget my day-trip to Tatooine.
Simon Parkin is an award-winning writer and journalist from England. A contributor to New Yorker.com, The New York Times, Harper's, the Guardian, New Statesmen, ESPN magazine, and BBC, he writes on a variety of subjects, often around culture and technology.
Parkin's first non-fiction book, Death by Video Game, was published in 2015 by Serpent’s Tail in the UK, and is due to be published in the US in 2016 by Melville House.
ILMxLab, based in San Francisco, is the division of Industrial Light & Magic that creates next generation immersive entertainment experiences.