Date night checklist: Dinner, movie… virtual reality?

Originally published April 5, 2019

By Ian Sherr

I see a floating walkway through the opened door of my spacecraft. I pause a moment to get my bearings, then — WHOOSH — I’m hit with the bright light and heat of boiling lava a few feet away. Stormtroopers stand to my right, blaster rifles in hand in case things get messy.

Three other people and I had been recruited to help the Rebel Alliance infiltrate an Imperial stronghold and steal something… important. (Isn’t it always?)

My fellow intergalactic spies and I are dressed for the part, wearing full Stormtrooper regalia so we won’t get noticed. So far, things have been going smoothly.

I steady myself as the moving platform beneath my feet makes its way to an ominous-looking castle surrounded by a sea of lava. Hot air blows on my face, and I can’t stop staring at the spectacular view of the boiling ocean that surrounds me.

For a moment I actually forget I’m in a convention center in San Jose, California, where I’m wearing a virtual reality headset and playing Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire.

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was old enough to say “May the force be with you,” swing a toy lightsaber and dream of living in a galaxy far, far away. I’ve played the games, collected the toys, read the books, ridden the amusement park rides and (obviously) watched the movies and the TV shows.

“Watching movies, playing video games, there’s always been a separation between you and the Star Wars universe,” says Mohen Leo, director of immersive content at Lucasfilm’s ILMxLab experimental storytelling group.

Which explains why I couldn’t wait to play The Void’s Star Wars game and actually feel as if I lived in that world. When my son, 2, gets old enough, he’ll probably be joining me. A lot.

That’s because how we spend our evenings and weekends out is set to change radically. As more of us shop from our phones, malls and other venues are exploring immersive experiences that would give us reasons to visit. Some may offer VR games from the likes of The Void and Nomadic that include sensors and strategically placed fans and heaters for an extra level of immersion. Other experiences have a carnival atmosphere, with a mix of VR and real-world games. And then there’s Meow Wolf, an immersive theatrical experience created by an art collective in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with funding by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin.

The result — as with arcades of the ’70s and ’80s and laser tag of the ’90s — is experiences we can’t have at home.

“Everything’s becoming more immersive,” says Dan Wenhold, a principal at Fifth Wall Ventures, a venture capital firm funding next-generation real estate technology.

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