A large part of the story of Star Wars, and of Lucasfilm, is innovation. Trying new things. Blending technologies. Experimenting. Seeing what works, what doesn’t. Embracing the unknown. It’s an ethos that started with lightsabers and trench runs and outer-space dogfights, led to digital dinosaurs that looked as real as any animal we’d ever seen, and recently brought us a ball-shaped robot that captured our imaginations and hearts. And Lucasfilm’s next big foray into the future is here.
In a special press event held at Lucasfilm headquarters in San Francisco yesterday, ILMxLAB unveiled Trials on Tatooine: a completely enveloping, interactive virtual reality experiment. Developed under the guidance of Rob Bredow, Lucasfilm’s chief technology officer, and co-written by Bredow and Star Wars canon-keeper Pablo Hidalgo, Trials on Tatooine throws you into Star Wars for, truly, the first time, and for a longtime fan, it’s a watershed moment. Without delivering too many spoilers, it goes something like this.
Strap on the VR headset, take a remote in hand. But with the VR gear on, the remote looks more like something from a Coruscant electronics shop. Space and stars surround you. The opening crawl begins — the familiar Star Wars main theme triumphantly blaring — but this is no normal Star Wars prologue. It’s three-dimensional, you’re right on top of it. You learn that Luke Skywalker, having defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor, is looking to rebuild the Jedi Order. One hopeful Padawan is heading to Tatooine. That Padawan is you.
The prologue fades, the camera pans, and you soon find yourself on the desert homeworld of your master. Literally, on Tatooine. Turn 360 degrees, look up, look down. You’re not anywhere else. All you see is desert and sky and Star Wars stuff. Sound — music and wind and and more — surrounds you. Now, the experiment really begins. You encounter the Falcon, watch as it lands right next to you (you might find yourself ducking as it descends, which is totally normal), and get a special gift from Artoo — a lightsaber, which you’ll soon get to use. That’s when Star Wars dreams really come true, and it is, in a word, transformative. It feels like a next step. StarWars.com caught up with Bredow over e-mail to talk Trials on Tatooine.
StarWars.com: An experiment like Trials on Tatooine is largely uncharted territory for immersive storytelling, and it definitely is for Star Wars. Take me back to the beginning of the project, and how you decided upon what you could do and what you would create.
Rob Bredow: In some ways, at ILMxLAB we feel like we are breaking new ground with every immersive project we start right now. In the case of Trials on Tatooine, we started by testing what it would feel like to be able to actually stand right below the Millennium Falcon as it’s coming in for a landing nearly on your head. In addition to working with some of the best artists and engineers in the world, we are all Star Wars fans and wanted to stand underneath our favorite ship. We began with the actual model ILM used on The Force Awakens and animated it swooping in, and then Skywalker Sound helped design the audio and set us up with a custom surround system with four giant subwoofers. When we put it all together with a state-of-the-art virtual reality system and tried it out, we knew we had the start of an amazing experience.
StarWars.com: Pablo Hidalgo is credited as co-writer. How did you collaborate with him and the Story Group? It’s set after Return of the Jedi, so there’s an exciting, authentic angle to it.
Rob Bredow: ILMxLAB is fortunate to get to work directly with Lucasfilm’s Story Group, and Pablo is a wonderful creative to be paired up with. I scripted out the basic beats of the experience and then met with Diana Williams, Pablo Hidalgo, and Dave Filoni, and they all added so many great ideas, jokes, and authenticity to the story. There’s nothing more fun than getting to sit in a room with that team and ILMxLAB’s creative director John Gaeta and bat ideas around for a never-before-seen VR experience like this! I had to pinch myself when we were recording the voices with Filoni at Skywalker Sound — truly a dream come true.
StarWars.com: You’re presenting a lot of things here in a way they’ve never been seen before — the opening crawl, the Falcon, R2-D2, etc. What was the process for bringing these all into a VR environment?
Rob Bredow: Finding ways to bring familiar elements into VR is important. Putting on a VR headset and walking around a virtual space is a brand new experience for most people so we wanted to provide people a moment to relax as we started the experience with the crawl and get used to being immersed inside Star Wars. Our goal is always to honor the authenticity we all love about Star Wars so you’re looking at the same digital model used on the film, with changes to ensure we can keep a very high frame rate required for an immersive VR experience. Fortunately, we have world-class artists in ILMxLAB who are used to working at cinematic quality on films and experiences like this.
StarWars.com: I noticed little touches in the experience — I could tap boxes and interact with the environment in other ways. How long did it take you to figure out, “People are going to want to experiment with this thing, let’s let them.”
Rob Bredow: The key way we discovered how people wanted to “play” in our world was to watch different people try the experience over and over. It turns out with immersive experiences like this, the more times you can deliver when a user taps on a box or tries other things in the experience, it really helps with the sense of presence and it’s simply a lot of fun. The artists at ILMxLAB are always looking for new opportunities to add those fun bells and whistles to the experience. I can’t wait for people to try them all.
StarWars.com: Is Trials on Tatooine something I can experience at home?
Rob Bredow: We are starting to see the first high-quality virtual reality headsets hitting the market this year. ILMxLAB is currently in development on experiences beyond this small experiment that we think people will really enjoy as immersive entertainment becomes readily available in the home.
StarWars.com: How far would you say this is pushing the technology at this point?
Rob Bredow: We’re making some pretty good strides and still have plenty more to invent. ILMxLAB is powered by the technology created by the Advanced Development Group, a super high-end group of engineers and artists who work together to create the tools and the tech to make experiences like Trials on Tatooine possible. You should see what’s next!
StarWars.com: Interacting with the Falcon is one thing, but the moment I ignited my lightsaber I could not stop smiling. Has that happened to a lot of people you’ve shown it to?
Rob Bredow: Wielding a lightsaber is a dream I think every Star Wars fan has had since seeing the very first film. To answer your question directly: Yes, that smile is universal.
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content writer, and spends his days writing stuff for and around StarWars.com. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.