Why VR content investment in ‘a galaxy far, far away’ is just the beginning

Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB studio recently released virtual reality content for the official Star Wars mobile apps, marking the first time the beloved sci-fi property has dabbled in VR content. It definitely won’t be the last, either.

The new experience, called Jakku Spy, is designed for use with Google Cardboard. Jakku Spy is an experience in installments, and today marks the first installment’s release. New pieces of the Jakku Spy puzzle will be uploaded every few days leading up to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens release on December 18.

The first VR experience itself is short: You’re treated to the signature Star Wars crawl, which informs you that you’re a spy for the Resistance on the desert planet Jakku where you’ll be on the lookout for enemy activity. Then, you find yourself standing atop a massive sloping sand dune, surrounded by high temperatures and hot, dry wind. There’s plenty to see, but you’ll scarcely have time to inspect before a speeder whizzes past, weapons ablaze. A moment later, a few bleeps and bloops grab your attention and you’ll turn to find a looking small, helpful, and very round BB-8 with a message for you.

That’s it, really. It’s just a taste. It’s a chance to step onto Jakku, to look around, to take ownership of your own perspective within a created world. And for now, that’s how VR exists in our world — the “real” one.

Jakku Spy is made to be intentionally limited and short. It’s supplemental. It’s a bite-sized experienced, contained in something that many of us have access to: a smartphone. It requires no special equipment, no high-powered computer, no costly headset and no wires. Google Cardboard was designed around the core principle of accessibility. Headsets are often around $30 (though special edition Star Wars Google Cardboard headsets themed after BB-8, R2-D2, Kylo Ren, and a Stormtrooper will be for sale in-store at Verizon retail locations) and most Google Cardboard apps and experiences themselves are free.

In many ways, Google Cardboard is the world’s necessary first step into VR. One of virtual reality’s biggest challenges on the road to mainstream acceptance is access. You can’t know how utterly different a VR experience is until you’ve tried it for yourself, and words simply fall flat. Trying to describe what a VR experience is like to someone who has never tried it is like trying to explain the way the wind feels or what it’s like to see the ocean for the first time. And, if we’re being honest, Google Cardboard isn’t anywhere close to the best VR has to offer us. It’s light years away from Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive and even Samsung’s Gear VR.

But this, Google Cardboard, is our necessary first step. And the involvement of what is arguably the world’s largest film franchise is nothing if not a clear indicator of the future of VR and the extent to which Disney and Lucasfilm understand that for now, it’s important that everyone be able to experience Jakku for themselves, without the aid of early adopter equipment.

There’s more coming in VR. More content. More headsets. More frames per second, more time behind the lenses, more sound. Just more. There will, inevitably, be a time when we have long, standalone experiences in the headset. The technology is progressing, the demand is growing. But for now, VR experiences are supplemental. They’re short, they add depth and immersion to existing IP’s and experiences. There are opportunities for VR storytelling, but for now, introducing viewers to familiar characters and worlds through a new lens has proven an effective first step into VR.

In the announcement this morning, Rob Bredow, Lucasfilm’s head of New Media/VP, Advanced Development group said,

“ILMxLAB’s whole foundation and mission is about creating immersive entertainment, and that includes virtual reality. We think a lot of people are going to experience virtual reality in Google Cardboard for the first time with Jakku Spy. It’s a great opportunity because there’s this familiar content — characters and vehicles that you’ve seen in trailers — but you’re seeing it in a completely new way.”

Jakku Spy is meant to draw you in, to build anticipation for The Force Awakens, to introduce you to Jakku so that you feel like you know it and you must see it for yourself in theaters. And it’s working. Jakku Spy, much like most of the content in the Star Wars app, is meant to build the world of Star Wars. It isn’t long, and it isn’t standalone.

It doesn’t provide hours of interaction in the Star Wars universe, but it’s a start. And if the last paragraph of the announcement is any indication, that’s just what Jakku Spy is: Ultimately, Jakku Spy is the first step into a larger (virtual reality) world for Lucasfilm and Star Wars,” said the release. “And that’s something to be truly excited about.”