A new virtual reality location-based exhibit promises to take visitors on a trip into space. The Infinite makes use of exclusive video taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station and uses a battery of multisensory and interactive tools to make the experience as real as possible.
Yet… ultimately the travelers will be grounded walking around a 12,500 square-foot gallery.
The Infinite, which debuted in Montreal last month, is a joint venture by PHI Studio and Felix & Paul Studios. It’s an extension of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, a documentary production, produced by Felix & Paul Studios in association with TIME Studios and launched last October 2020 on the Oculus Quest 2.
READ MORE: Felix & Paul Studios and PHI Studio are thrilled to present THE INFINITE (Felix & Paul Studios)
The project uses some of the 200 hours of footage recorded over two years on a Z-Cam V1 Pro 360-degree camera by eight astronauts aboard the ISS.
Transitioning from more static cinematic footage in VR, 90 simultaneous “users will be able to wander in a free-roaming environment” through a full-scale 1:1 wireframe representation of the ISS within the gallery.
“We just approached NASA and laid out a vision for what this could be,” says Felix & Paul’s Paul Raphaël. “We always knew we wanted to capture humans in space, but we also knew we had to earn our way there. So, we started on smaller projects, like capturing astronaut training, and over time built up enough goodwill to start talking about the logistics of Space Cameras [the Z-Cams].”
As visitors roam, a mixture of 3DoF/6DoF VR, spatial audio, and interactive hotspots act as “experience sweeteners” according to Epic Games. Unreal Engine was integral to the build of the virtual environment.
Pierre Blaizeau, head of technology at Felix & Paul, explains: “One of the biggest challenges of this experience is a visitor’s movement within the space. It’s not A to B. There are transitions between 6DoF and stereoscopic content that have to go smoothly. There are interactive elements that require precise tracking, and general things that just need to be avoided for everything to feel seamless.”
Getting 150 people through the door every hour also means there won’t be one ISS in the room; instead, several are required, all arranged in a Tetris-like configuration within Unreal Engine for maximum occupancy. And while the experience was created with free roaming at heart, there are still beats the producers want people to hit. Trigger points, for instance, are scattered throughout to make use of the exclusive footage.
The production makes uses of volumetric audio, captured along with the video, and hand tracking needed for object activations.
The production promises the VR-nauts will “feel the weightlessness of an astronaut,” although of course they are all on terra firma.
To keep them from feeling unnerved by the experience the makers say the floor is essential. “We feel grounded when there’s actual ground beneath us, so we made sure to build that into Unreal,” says Raphaël. “The same grid is inside the ISS, but it’s much bigger outside to bring people comfort. It’s very stylized and still lets us show the stars below, so you have a good balance between a necessary device and all the realistic sights that actually make you feel like you’re out there.”
Adults are charged $50 for an hour-long experience, 35 minutes of which is in VR. Then there’s a chance to following the astronauts outside where they work on the space station. The goal is to give the viewer something very few people on Earth have ever experienced — access to the “Overview Effect.”
This is a shift in awareness that astronauts report when they see Earth for the first time in space and could be the highlight of the show.
The rest of the hour is padded with a specially commissioned art exhibit by Ryoji Ikeda.
After Montreal, the exhibit travels to Houston, New York, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, and Los Angeles.
It is the latest in a long series of marketing initiatives by NASA as it seeks to build public enthusiasm for upcoming expensive missions to the moon and Mars.