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The 'Star Wars' holographic chess game is nearly a reality

Engadget Engadget 4/05/2016 Jessica Conditt

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"Let's be real: Any article you read about Magic Leap or any AR platform, the first thing they talk about is Holochess."

That's Mike Levine, former senior effects specialist at LucasArts and current CEO of mobile game developer Happy Giant. Levine is working on a new project with Corey Rosen, former creature effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, and legendary monster designer Phil Tippett -- the man who created Holochess for the original Star Wars: A New Hope. Together, these sci-fi comrades are building HoloGrid: Monster Battle, a tactical collectible card game that takes numerous cues from the classic Holochess scene.

Forty years on, Star Wars still exerts a huge influence Tippett's life.

"It's really weird," Tippett says. "It's like being in some kind of time bubble or Groundhog's Day. It keeps coming back."

He's not upset that Star Wars hijacked his career path all those years ago. Instead, Tippett embraces it. HoloGrid is a mobile game that uses physical cards, and eventually it will evolve into a virtual reality and augmented reality experience -- basically, it'll look a lot like Holochess. Tippett and friends are asking for $100,000 on Kickstarter to make the game, and they plan to launch it as a boxed, fixed-price product (no free-to-play microtransactions). It'll also come with a physical game board that allows purists to play without any technological gimmicks at all. For everyone else, HoloGrid comes with a stand for a smartphone or tablet showcasing a free app that brings the game to life.

Players build their decks, choosing minions, spells and monsters from a range of classes, and then scan in their cards using the app. The creatures then come to life on-screen -- in a familiar way.

Tippett designed all of the monsters in HoloGrid and they're not just 3D renderings. He created physical, six-inch models of every monster in the game and then transferred those into the digital realm using photogrammetry -- snapping detailed, 360-degree images of each creature. It's the exact same technique Tippett used to recreate the Holochess scene in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

JJ Abrams, director of The Force Awakens, wanted to feature the original Holochess creatures in the new film, so Tippett went on a mission to gather and rebuild the models he made in the 1970s. Star Wars creator George Lucas had some, of course. Once the team had wrapped the Holochess scene in A New Hope, they encased the circular game board and its creatures in a plaque, and presented it to Lucas as gift.

"That stayed in his office for years and years and years, and because of the way those characters were made, they disintegrate over time," Tippett says. "They turn into graham crackers."

The original Holochess scene was actually a last-minute addition to A New Hope. Tippett had a stop-motion puppet -- something he'd made when he was 16 -- on set, and it inspired Lucas to use the same technique for a futuristic game of chess. This was near the end of the production schedule, so Tippett and his crew hurried to create and shoot a cast of monsters engaged in an illogical, yet instantly classic, match of strategy and muscle. It took about two weeks to create the creatures.

But, rebuilding these monsters for The Force Awakens took months. Lucas had some of them, and so did The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

"Essentially what we had to do was archaeological reconstruction," Tippett says. "You couldn't even touch these things without them falling apart."

The creatures in HoloGrid aren't based on any of Tippett's Star Wars designs -- some of them are unused models from his previous works, like the short film Mad God, and others are brand new. Once reality catches up to the promises of technology, Tippett, Levine and Rosen envision HoloGrid as a real-life version of A New Hope's Holochess game. AR is the goal and the future, as far as they see it.

"Even though that tech is not here yet, at least for consumers, it's coming somewhat soon," Levine says. "Our whole vision here is really that this is version 1.0 of this project -- build the gameplay foundation, the mechanics -- but our real long-term vision is to take it to those platforms and be one of the first cool games on it."

Levine acknowledges that VR is the next cool thing in game tech, but he sees a longer shelf life for AR experiences.

"You're on the bus, you're riding the subway, and you can pop on your glasses and start playing HoloGrid in front of you, or Minecraft," he says. "You put on your VR goggles, you're going to miss the next stop."

Tippett is excited about the prospects of AR, too.

"It's panning out like the wild west," he says. "What that allows for creative entities is just a huge opportunity to make stuff up without any adult supervision, which is what my goal is. Then I can be happy, as long as I'm not managed."

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