Disney/Lenovo’s Star Wars: Jedi Challenge is going to be the hit of the Christmas season. You heard it here first. Love Star Wars? Looking forward to the movie? You have to have this. Interested in AR and VR? You have to have this. Like games? You have to have this. This plastic-y $200 product into which you jam your smartphone is going to define augmented reality head-mounted displays for the consumer. It is both a harbinger of things to come and a box of good clean fun with a brand everyone loves.
In fact, stop reading this. Go to Disney’s exclusive partner, Best Buy, and give yourself a gift. If you’re reading this column, you deserve it. I didn’t wait for Christmas. I opened mine when it arrived at 6 a.m. on Tuesday (this story was under embargo until 12 a.m. ET Friday). I mean, why wait for the future? The special Fed Ex guy drove it right to my door. The future is in a rush, and it looks like a toy.
Within 15 minutes I had downloaded the app and snapped my iPhone 8 into the sleeve mount and slid into the top of the plastic headset. The system works exactly like you think it would. A stereoscopic image on your phone is bounced onto transparent plastic lenses to create the illusion of ghostlike “holograms” in the real world. Even with the phone in it, the headset is extraordinarily light and comfortable. It sits lightly on my face. I can wear my glasses underneath it and there’s plenty of room, and lots of air circulating, so there are no heat or sweat issues from extended use. The set up was close to plug-and-play.
Jedi Challenge comes with three specific single player experiences: Lightsaber Battles, Strategic Combat, and Holochess. The Archivist, a new character created specifically for Jedi Challenge, leads the user from one challenge to another seamlessly. The Archivist also fills us in on Star Wars history, including where the Jedi Challengefits in.
While progressing through the Galaxy, players can achieve multiple Jedi mastery levels from Padawan to Knight and eventually Master. The game lets you unlock the ranks of the Jedi Order and earn medals and power-ups. The lightsaber will eventually change color as you rank upwards. Winning at Holochess you earn new pieces. As you progress through Jedi Challenge missions you will unlock more abilities and weapons. I am not a gamer, and it is unlikely I will fight my way through every level. After more than two hours, I felt like I had barely scratched the surface. “We’re confident there’s deep, engaging gameplay in here for players who want to take a deep dive and enjoy the challenge of acquiring mastery,” said Mike Goslin, Disney’s VP of Advanced Consumer Products.
Eighteen months ago, Goslin’s group at Disney consumer products was brainstorming on how to use Augmented Reality to create the ultimate lightsaber. As the team riffed on the idea, Jedi Challengewas born. Goslin’s technology and creative team designed the game and did the animation, working with the gurus at Disney subsidiary Lucasfilm to ensure Jedi Challenge was integrated into the Star Wars mythology. “Our goal was to create a compelling illusion, with high fidelity, high frame rate, and authentic realism,” said Goslin.
Just 10 months ago at the 2017 Consumer Electronic Show, Lenovo jumped at the chance to use its vast hardware expertise and deep knowledge of AR to create Jedi Challenge, the first consumer AR device, with Disney. So began a cross-continental (Raleigh — Burbank — Bejing) sprint to bring Jedi Challenge to market just in time for Christmas. “Our eyes lit up with the possibilities, but we had to fight off the temptations of good ideas or mission creep would have killed our deadlines,” said Matt Bereda, Lenovo’s VP, Global Consumer Marketing, (PCs, Tablets, AR/VR and Smart Devices).
I worry they may not let me keep my demo unit [CF: I’m kidding. Its actually not ethical for me to keep it] if I point out some of the downsides, but it’s possible I’ll be done with my Challenge anyway by the time Christmas actually arrives. Amazingness is a first impression. What happens a month later after everyone’s gone ‘wow’? Junior’s burned through Jedi Challenge, put it on the shelf and goes back the mayhem of LOL, COD or GTA on PS4. When I asked how we are going to keep gorging on AR entertainment with only Jedi Challenge, Goslin laughed. “We’re still catching our breath!” If Star Wars AR is successful, we can expect more content for the platform. There is a very similar and lower priced competitor out there this Christmas, Mira, whose Prism is also a low-cost smartphone powered AR head-mounted display. Unlike Disney, Mira is very focused on third-party developers.
The other concern is about how mobile phones handle the intense real-time graphics needs the app. My old iPhone 6s could not handle iOs 11 AR. The phone got hotter and hotter as the battery drained faster and faster until it abruptly died. My iPhone 8 gets hot, too, but not enough to slow frame rates or cause any other harm. I’m told almost every cell made in the past five years has been tested and is able to manage the demands of the Star Wars AR app without melting the plastic or running out of juice.
More than the Hololens, more than any other consumer device yet brought to the consumer market, including the noise around Apple’s recent use of AR on the iPhone, Jedi Challenge will define AR in consumer culture for some time, and not just in the US. The new Star Wars AR consumer product is being launched worldwide, first in the US, UK, Germany and, after January 1, China.
This post was originally featured on Forbes.com on November 3, 2017