'Star Wars' AR, VR experiences let fans live out their fantasies

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 5/7/2018, 3:21 p.m.
The "Star Wars" galaxy has become much more heavily trafficked since Disney agreed to acquire Lucasfilm in 2012. Yet as ...
"Star Wars" was released in theaters May 25, 1977 and it set off out of this world fandom and one of Hollywood's most beloved, and successful, franchises ever.

Brian Lowry

(CNN) -- The "Star Wars" galaxy has become much more heavily trafficked since Disney agreed to acquire Lucasfilm in 2012. Yet as fans prepare to commemorate May the 4th -- a pun that grew into a de facto holiday for franchise enthusiasts -- some of most exciting iterations of George Lucas' creation are spilling into new forms of augmented and virtual reality.

Lenovo is celebrating May the 4th by announcing a new feature for its "Star Wars: Jedi Challenges" augmented reality experience, introducing an option that enables players to compete against each other. Previously, the product -- which uses headsets and a lightsaber-approximating wand, powered by a smartphone app -- exclusively featured battles against characters from the series, like "Star Wars" villains Darth Vader and Kylo Ren.

The free update follows the launch of the "Jedi Challenges" experience in November. The product is generally priced at $199 -- by no means cheap, but thanks to relying on the smartphone that people already own, not a huge expense relative to the hours that wannabe Jedi can devote to it.

Meanwhile, a "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire" virtual-reality experience recently popped up in the Los Angeles area's Glendale Galleria and in Las Vegas, joining existing locations in, among others, Orlando, Anaheim and London. The 12-to-15-minute game lets participants completely escape into an imaginary environment (the distinction between AR and VR), working on a collective mission disguised as a Stormtrooper. That enterprise is a collaboration of a company called The Void and ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm's Immersive Entertainment division.

Having sampled both, each has its merits, even for a Luddite, and the two actually complement each other. "Jedi Challenges" is a great deal of fun, and has the extra convenience of being the kind of thing fans -- and now, two people -- can easily enjoy in their living rooms. The graphics are impressive, and the headset fits pretty comfortably -- even, it's worth noting, over eye glasses.

The VR experience requires schlepping to a mall, and at $29.95, might be a bit pricey. But it approximates the sense of being inside a "Star Wars" movie and helping fans "live out their fantasy," as the Void's promotional materials put it, wearing a headset and backpack that allows players to see and feel every part of their environment.

The "feel" part is especially impressive, including heat from the planet's molten surface and the recoil from blasters as participants walk through in interactive adventure and mow down Stormtroopers. It's also, notably, a more social endeavor, as groups of four go through the experience.

Interestingly, the appeal of these augmented and virtual permutations also goes beyond the stereotype of hard-core gamers. Lenovo, for example, says that the demographics of its offering are relatively broad -- concentrated among consumers age 18-44, with roughly a 60-40 split between men and women.

The bottom line is that those who are invested enough in "Star Wars" to greet people with "May the 4th be with you" have an increasing array of high-tech options designed to let them do much more than just passively absorb it on the couch. While we haven't entered "Westworld" territory yet, for those whose appetite for George Lucas' galaxy doesn't end at the IMAX screen, these just might be the experiences you're looking for.