What could Virtual Reality bring to Star Wars and Disney Parks?

by Todd King, contributing writer

Surprise! A new Rogue One Trailer

Trailer number two for Rogue One showed up online from out of nowhere last week. It was less like an event and more like a reminde, with no comic-cons,  sci-fi events, or Disney anniversaries to coincide with its appearance. It just sort of showed up. It seems we've all been distracted by the cycle of daily political scandals that we weren't expecting it.

In 10 hours it got over two million views on YouTube, but due to its quiet entrance to the world, those numbers will probably build more slowly than the first trailer did. Word of mouth will spread the news far and wide that the trailer is out and that it is good. So good. Anticipation will now take root and it is only two months away from its theatrical premiere.

Rogue One Official Trailer 2. Lucasfilm.

Just how good is the new preview? With the revelation of Jyn's father, Galen, and his role in the creation of the Death Star, the preview really drove home how high the stakes are for the characters in this movie.

We learn that because of her father, Jyn's involvement in the entire heist has its motivation. There is a shot of a young Jyn witnessing her father approached by Imperial officers, setting conflict. The risk for Jyn is now greater than just obtaining the plans to the battle station and its super weapon. She and her team may double up on their mission, not only get those plans, but perhaps to also rescue Galen. That is only my guess, and even if that qualifies as a potential spoiler, it is a great set-up for the plot that will get the public invested in the character of Jyn.

Based on what we've seen in the previews and in the new theatrical poster where Felicity Jones as Jyn dominates the image, the movie is very much going to be her story. I believe that whatever Galen does will be central to some overarching plot in the Star Wars saga—but what Jyn does will be the central motif of the story, of choosing the right side and continuing to make the tough choices once on that side. For me, I was already excited about Rogue One and had planned to see it, but now, I want to find out what challenges Jyn faces, as well as how and why this team of diverse fighters comes together.

Disney stores have "Rogue One" images covering entire front windows with lots of new merchandise inside. Photo by Todd King.

The trailer doesn't touch too much on the other characters that join Jyn for this dangerous adventure. We did get glimpses of their traits in the previous trailer, but not so much in this new one. I hope they aren't pushed back into the background, since it was announced early on that they are a team. I want to learn about these characters—perhaps some more smaller trailers or TV spots will showcase them.

If Lucasfilm and Disney want to sell action figures based on these characters, we'd want to know who they are and why we should like them. But aside from all that, I just love the idea of a teamwork movie, a heist movie, a war movie,where they all must use their individual strengths. And in spite of their personalities and possible weaknesses, they come together to fight the good fight and win the battle against the evil forces of the Empire.

Even though we have an ensemble cast, it seems that Jyn Erso will definitely be the standout character, and Felicity Jones the standout star of this movie. She will carry the weight of the film and I do believe it's going to be great.

Star Wars Land and Virtual Reality?

There seems to be some information about Virtual Reality (VR) and its connection to the rides coming to Star Wars land in Disneyland and in Walt Disney World. The glimpses we've seen of the Millennium Falcon attraction thus far have shown what appears to be a simulator similar to Star Tours but with the promise of greater interactivity. Some bits of information about that interactivity have seeped through the recent Game Developers Conference, with presenters talking about the Unreal Engine platform being used to power the experience of the new attractions. There weren't complete revelations about how the new rides would work and what exactly would be happening during the experience, but surrounding the presentation was a lot of talk about VR, which had me pondering about its possible use in the new Star Wars park.

The new Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the new PlayStation virtual reality sets are either already out or near release. There is much anticipation that these VR sets will bring a new era of video games and entertainment. I think back to the promise of virtual reality two decades ago and when we first saw it highlighted in the final scene of the then-updated Carousel of Progress. Grandma sure can take down those alien spaceships! But with the new kits and hardware it seems VR may have come of age and we'll probably be seeing some of these as Christmas gifts this year across the country. But these are sets for home use—what would this have to do with Disney?

Trials on Tatooine is a Virtual Reality game set in the Star Wars galaxy. Photo by Industrial Light & Magic.

There is already a VR Star Wars game out called "Trials on Tatooine," which seems to be a pretty decent hit on the HTC Vive. In it, you find yourself on the titular planet and have encounters with droids, try to repair the Millennium Falcon, and fend off Stormtroopers with a lightsaber. More games are coming to the other platforms from Disney based on the Star Wars properties. The interactive division of Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic seems to be going head-first into VR and working hard on these games and interactive experiences. There's even suggestion that they're going to make a virtual reality movie starring Darth Vader. Could these games and projects lead to even larger ideas?

It has been mentioned that some of these virtual reality experiences may be coming to Disney parks, and it makes me wonder how. We already have lots of simulators, and in fact, the main attraction for Star Wars at the current time is Star Tours which is a classic simulator ride. But now we are going to have Star Wars land a big new park with all kinds of new experiences, interactive rides, and immersive areas for us to walk through and be physically immersed in. So how would any of this new land incorporate a virtual reality game or related experience? You don't want people walking around the park wearing virtual reality headsets, right? Maybe there are other VR experiences that could be planned that may have guests wearing headsets inside theaters or inside special areas where interactive things may happen. It's interesting to note that with some current simulator rides, like Star Tours, 3D glasses are already part of the interactivity. Adding a virtual reality headset to such an experience is an interesting prospect.

Could it be that some virtual reality experiences are taking similar ideas from Pokémon Go? Instead of using our smartphones throughout the Star Wars park, maybe an added experience is a virtual reality headset that allows you to see things around the park that nobody else would see without the glasses? Would you be a Jedi fighting monsters in nooks and crannies throughout the park? Or experience something else in a ride or a theater, or even in the gift shops? It doesn't seem feasible to walk around with the goggles on, so it would have to be utilized in some small ways, perhaps only in special areas. The whole idea would blend virtual reality, augmented reality, and theme park attractions. If Disney is somehow going to have some kind of interactive lightsaber show, as has been mentioned in the last couple months, it would almost make sense that a virtual reality headset could be required. Maybe this blending of ideas extends beyond the theme park.

Could Disney be building a greater experience with Star Wars land to use virtual reality games outside the park, such as on PlayStation or the other platforms, that would allow you to build up experience or have adventures in the galaxy before you arrive at Star Wars land? Once you're on Disney property, you would use your already-earned abilities and experience to go on a final adventure of sorts, making the entire experience go beyond just a visit to the park. You would actually be trying to experience something before you go to the park, enjoy something while you're at the park, and then perhaps something else after you leave the park.

If Disney centers this around Star Wars, which is already based in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy, then this would be an interesting start to such a wide-ranging experience. I'm sure such an experience would be designed so your visit to the park would not be diminished by not participating in any of the virtual reality experiences, but those wanting the experience, be it virtual reality games or smartphone apps, would find an enhanced experience.

If I were to guess, let's say you get one of the virtual reality platforms and you get one of the new Star Wars virtual reality games. You would play a role playing adventure game where you play a Jedi character. You complete quests to level up and gain experience to obtain items and weapons to build up your character. While on this adventure, you fight bosses, destroy enemy bases, even pilot X-Wings. Maybe a side quest includes a visit to Star Wars land. Then while you're in Star Wars, you seek out certain areas or certain places to complete a mission, whether just to check in at the location, or to perform a task. What if your final task in the Star Wars park is to have an encounter with Darth Vader as the final boss?

Baed on concept art, we know that Star Wars land will be populated by costumed characters. What if a quest includes meeting certain people in certain places at certain times within the park? For example, maybe you have to go to The Cantina to meet a pilot, who gives you your reward or next quest to finish your adventure? It would be interesting to see how something like that could be managed within Disney Parks themselves. If cast members are required to be part of this adventure then this is something very special, but also difficult to pull off. You would have to have cast members set in certain places at certain times and be able to handle guests who approached them who are on this adventure. I imagine lots of guests could come at one time and they would get in line to see these particular characters. But if you have lots of cast members and you develop the software to handle dispersing the crowds, then you could spread out these kinds of characters throughout the park to stop any kind of lines or bottlenecks. Maybe you wouldn't be able to tell who you were supposed to meet unless you had on the VR goggles.

So perhaps the adventure requires you defeat Darth Vader. Darth Vader is part of the Jedi Academy training shows, where kids dressed as Jedi face him in a quick duel. But now, the encounter would be altogether different because of the game or the virtual reality glasses. With virtual reality, you can encounter this anywhere. Don the VR glasses, and you could be behind a park bench or next to a landmark for your encounter. The idea opens up lots of possibilities for an enhanced park experience, probably for a premium price.

While I don't like those premium experiences because you're locking out people who are already paying a lot for a Disney vacation, those who spend the money would find it to be really cool. Perhaps the cost could be offset if the experience could be shared with a couple of guests—you could swap the glasses at certain points in the adventure. Again I don't see how you could have people walking around the park with virtual goggles on so I'm not sure if anything like this will work. Nevertheless, I think Disney must be planning some kind of virtual reality or augmented reality interactivity, and we will just have to wait and see what it is. The possibility of that experience is intriguing because it goes beyond boundaries of the park. A game like that would give a reason for people to visit the park because the game might require you to get there and obtain a certain item; it's like Pokémon Go where some of the monsters are only available in certain areas. The addition of the VR or AR would add a layer to a park experience that's never been done before.

I also wonder if this experience with VR would be nice for people who can't get to the parks for one reason or another. Maybe the park itself will be available as a virtual reality place and within that place you could walk around and see what Star Wars land is like. Maybe you could encounter the characters that are there live or maybe even interact with guests who are at the park at that time. We are talking some major bandwidth requirements for something like this but Disney can make the magic. Would they do this with other parks? Could you experience Magic Kingdom or Epcot or Disneyland from a virtual reality perspective? Of course it would never be the same as actually being there but I wonder what Disney could do with such technology after it's up and running. I've always wanted to have such an experience because if I can only get to Disney World every few years it would be nice to have a somewhat realistic experience with the parks while I'm not there. But I can imagine an imagineering meeting where such an idea like this is proposed and getting shot down because you want people to, you know, come to the parks. But I wonder if it would help some of the crowd problem? Eh, I'm just guessing and brainstorming at this point but all of this opens up a lot of possibilities and new ways of thinking theme parks and experiences and virtual reality and the use of the internet. I think Star Wars land is going to be more than just an ordinary park, it's going to be on the cusp of the future in a galaxy very near to us.