York-based Continuum Attractions, operators of unique visitor attraction experiences, partnered with USA- based start-up, The VOID, to bring a Star Wars themed, hyper-reality pop-up experience to the UK.
A fully immersive sensory experience, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire expands the boundaries of location based VR, bringing free-range hyper-reality to interactive sets, and transporting participants into the imagined universe of Star Wars. The ground-breaking collaboration between Continuum and The VOID with Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB launched at Westfield, London in December 2017, before moving to Stratford City.
Blooloop caught up with Kevin Smith (below right), Group Attractions Director at Continuum Attractions, which operates the experience.
A window of opportunity for Continuum Attractions and The VOID
“I don’t think people truly understand what VR is about yet.” What The VOID has created is, Smith believes, a precedent that other attractions will follow. “For us as a business, it has been an opportunity we couldn’t possibly pass up.”
Continuum was first approached by The VOID in August 2017, when they were in the process of looking for a venue, and a potential operator in the UK marketplace. “In October, we had contact with them again. They had found a venue, at Westfield, London, Shepherd’s Bush, and thought they had better get things moving, so Andrew Darrow from The VOID came over to the UK, and met us in our offices.
“He then went back to the US, and reported back to the team; they confirmed that they wanted to move ahead with us, working in partnership to open the site at Westfield.”
Smith, who had seen a great deal of VR at the trade shows, yet never been hugely impressed, flew over to Salt Lake City with two colleagues to see the Secrets of the Empire production.
This time, he says: “I was absolutely blown away. After three days in Salt Lake City, I flew back to the UK and said, ‘We have to do this. It’s going to be the thing of the future. We would be foolish to not do it.’”
There was a prime challenge for Continuum in opening the attraction. It was that The VOID team wanted it to coincide with the launch of the new Star Wars film. Smith explains: “We had a total of five weeks. And that, in all honesty, is never long enough to open a site.”
He adds: “That really is when our support network for our York office came to the fore, with the HR team acting quickly to drum up interest and recruit people, and our marketing team drumming up interest in the experience.
“We had to work quickly and in a focused manner with The VOID, Disney, who obviously are behind this project, and Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB, to ensure that all marketing collateral was there and appropriately signed off by all parties. Again, five weeks to launch a project and get the marketing message out there really isn’t enough; ordinarily we would be looking at a minimum of six months in advance, to start messaging on the marketing side.”
Continuum were also responsible for setting up the business aspects.
Smith says: “Even the basics of setting up a bank account, credit card systems and so on takes time, but we are fortunate in having good partnerships with different organisations to move those forward. As far as the fundamentals of the operation are concerned, a lot of work went into in; especially that of developing the photosystem in house.
World’s first Secrets of the Empire in London
“The VOID had designed the set and coordinated the build aspect prior to our appointment, so that was all happening. But our team first gained access onto the site literally two days before we had VIPs going around the attraction. Because of this, all of our on-site training had to happen in a very expedient manner. It was very much a case where, from everyone, there was a little bit of learning on the hoof.”
The VOID had run the system in their offices in the US, but hadn’t actually opened a Secrets of the Empire Experience by that point; London was the first. Smith says: “They were due to open at Disney Springs in Orlando eight hours after we opened in London, so the claim to fame is that London was the very first one in the world.”
That, he says, was great, although: “All the eyes of Disney and The VOID were looking over our shoulders to make sure it was done well – which, as always, it was. They have since opened in LA at Disney, and in Vegas.”
He adds, “The operation at Westfield in London went really well; all weekends and evenings were virtually sold out, and everyone was really happy with that. And then we upped sticks and moved over to Stratford just before Easter.”
A slightly different layout at the new location
“The space at Stratford was thinner than at Shepherd’s Bush, so the whole box space had to be redesigned. We supported The VOID in doing that, advising on how best they could configure the space, and actually it is working operationally better for us. We were able to bring half of our team over from Shepherd’s Bush; the continuity of operation was seamless, and the opening at Stratford went very smoothly.”
Despite the inherent differences between the two locations, the reception was consistently good.
Smith clarifies this, saying: “Shepherd’s Bush is more central and is used by a lot more tourists than Stratford. Although Stratford gets a higher footfall, it is a far more local footfall, and less tourist. A lot of people who go to Stratford are just passing through the space between the rail terminal and underground. In terms of the feedback, however, it is still very strong. Around 97.5% of people are recommending the experience, and that has remained consistent from both operations.
“It has been received really well.”
Time is one of the biggest challenges
Continuum works with IP continually, on Coronation Street, Emmerdale and so forth, and is accustomed to working to ensure the brand owners are happy. However, there were definitely, according to Smith, specific challenges in terms of working with such a massive IP this time.
He says: “With a lot of these projects, time is one of the biggest challenges. And when you have five weeks to pull an amount of collateral together, that is difficult. I think the prime challenge is getting sign-off on imagery, and the fact that you’ve essentially got two brand owners. They ultimately share ownership, but it is very much ILMxLAB (Lucasfilm) that are the ruling decider on collateral.
“The other challenge is that the film was launching at the same time. Disney didn’t want any confusion between Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire and the film. Thus, there were restrictions on imagery. This limited the marketing we could do. Even getting the use of a storm trooper to put on a piece of print was very difficult.”
Mind blowing immersive VR
However, Smith confirms, the project has been a great one to have worked on. He says: “For me, being in the industry, I’ve been waiting for something like this to come along. There hasn’t been anything like it.
“Everyone has been championing VR for a few years now, and calling it the thing of the future, but I hadn’t seen anything that was particularly mind blowing; it was all a matter of being tethered up to something, or sat in something. This is completely free range, and really immerses you in a different world.”
When The VOID opened at Shepherd’s Bush, people asked Smith what it was about: “The easiest way that we found to explain it is: think of yourself as actually being in the Star Wars film. That is what it is like. You in essence become one of the characters in Star Wars. That is the phenomenal aspect of it.”
Smith himself has done the experience countless times. He says: “I never tire of it. I will always see something new, and I will always experience something slightly different.”
He adds, “We have actually cranked up a couple of the experiences at Stratford, so the vibrating floor, for example, is a little bit more intense. You come out even more engaged in the VR experience, because you are getting more sensory input.”
A look at the future
Smith contends that variety will be key to The VOID’s continuing success.
“I am aware that The VOID are considering other developments on new titles, both with IP and non-IP. And I think ultimately that’s what it will have to do. It needs to be an ever-changing portfolio or library of titles that people can tap into. There are actually two stages at Stratford. In time, one stage could be showing a Star Wars, and the other stage could be showing a different title. So people will be able to pick and choose what they want to do, or both while they are visiting.”
In conclusion, he says; “It has been a phenomenal experience to be involved with. And I think The VOID have learned by working with us too. We have all helped each other with a coherent working relationship. We still have a couple of calls a week to catch up on how things are going.
“It has been a very positive and productive relationship.”
All images courtesy of Continuum Attractions and The VOID.