TACOMA, Wash. — One tour of the International Space Station is not enough, even if you do the tour in virtual reality.
I found that out when I explored “The Infinite,” a cleverly conceived VR presentation that draws upon more than 250 hours’ worth of 3-D video shot aboard (and outside) the space station over the course of nearly three years.
After months-long runs in Montreal and Houston, the show … or exhibit … or whatever you want to call it … landed at the Tacoma Armory late last month and is open to visitors through Sept. 5.
The best way to describe “The Infinite” is to call it an immersive experience — an entertainment genre of relatively recent vintage that would also include the immersive Van Gogh exhibits that are making their way around the world. (One such exhibit recently wrapped up its Tacoma run, and another is still playing in Seattle.)
Even by the standards of immersive experience, “The Infinite” is in a class by itself.
“People don’t necessarily realize that this is the largest virtual-reality experience that has ever been created, in terms of size and in terms of capacity of people,” Felix Lajeunesse, co-founder of Felix & Paul Studios and chief creative officer for “The Infinite,” told me after my first encounter with the experience. “We can have up to 150 people sharing that collective experience at the same time, walking inside a 7,000-square-foot open space.’
So what do they experience?
Imagine putting on a VR headset, walking through outer space with the Northern Lights above you, and floating right through the hull of the ISS to peek in on what the astronauts are doing. You might be gathering with the crew around their makeshift dinner table for a birthday party, or watching them get ready for a spacewalk, or looking over their shoulders as they gaze through the station’s giant picture window while the Earth spins below.
You’re not just watching a movie. It’s as if you’re in the movie.
The VR system tracks your movements as you walk around a full-scale skeletal model of the space station that’s peppered with glowing virtual spheres. When you push your hand through one of the spheres, the view morphs into a 3-D video scene. You can hear the dialogue between the astronauts, or off-camera commentary from an astronaut.
“It’s a bit like walking into a movie set,” NASA astronaut Christina Koch says in one of the mini-scenes. She was talking about what it’s like to arrive at the International Space Station, but she just as well could have been talking about “The Infinite.”
The experience is organized into four “chapters,” focusing on adapting to the space environment, doing the work of space exploration, cooperating with international partners and looking ahead to the future. You have only about 35 minutes in all to explore the station, so there’s no way you can plow through more than 60 3-D scenes during a single tour.
At the end of Chapter 4, a sparkly path directs you through the VR space to a lounge chair where you can sit down and watch the presentation’s pièce de résistance: a spacewalk filmed in 3-D last September by a camera mounted on the space station’s robotic arm.
Jonathan Woods, executive producer at Time Studios, said the VR spacewalk fulfilled a years-long dream of his.
“To watch those astronauts working in front of you, I have to say, was a moment that on at least two or three occasions moved me to tears,” he told me. “One, because of the magnitude of having played some small part in creating that. But also [because of] the power that this has to transform people and allow them to experience the Overview Effect without the tremendous cost of leaving the planet on a rocket.”
“The Infinite” came about because Time Studios (the multimedia arm of Time magazine) and Felix & Paul Studios (a Montreal-based production company specializing in immersive entertainment) were both exploring the possibilities for doing VR on the space station.
Felix & Paul Studios had already been following astronauts through their on-the-ground training for a documentary series, while Time Studios had produced an Emmy-winning digital video series about NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s record-setting year in space. In 2017, the two teams decided to join forces with NASA and PHI Studio to boldly go where no media project had gone before.
The project involved building a specialized kind of 360-degree camera that could withstand the rigors of spaceflight, persuading NASA to set aside a significant chunk of the station’s precious crew time, and training the astronauts to serve as cinematographers, producers and actors in orbit.
“The thing that makes me the most excited to this day is the fact that the astronauts brought a lot of their own creative contributions to the project,” Lajeunesse said. “For instance, in many circumstances, while we were filming inside the space station with them, they would let the camera roll after they finished recording what was scheduled to be recorded. A lot of the content that you see there was captured that way, in those completely genuine moments.”
In one classic 3-D moment, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques lets his running shoes float in zero-G toward the camera. (Try to catch a shoe and see what happens.) In another scene, NASA astronaut Anne McClain shows Christina Koch around her new quarters and gives a piece of zero-G advice: “If you happen to kick something, I would say, turn around and see what you kicked.”
The VR environment for “The Infinite” is structured in such a way that you should be able to avoid kicking something — or someone. When strangers come within a range of about 12 feet, they materialize in your virtual space station as sparkly, Star Trek-like avatars with a glowing blue light in their chests. And you can always spot people in your own group as avatars with a golden light, no matter how far away they are.
“If you’re worried about your kid, you will always see your kid,” Lajeunesse said.
Here are some tips to maximize your “Infinite” experience, based on my tours:
- The scenes can be so immersive that you may be tempted to move around, but don’t do it unless you want to end the scene. For safety reasons, the VR interface is programmed to stop a scene and return you to the space station landscape if you move.
- In between scenes, make it a point to move to different locations in the virtual station. I stayed in the same area for my first tour, but found out later that I totally missed seeing views of Earth from the station’s Cupola observation module. “The more you move around the physical space, once you’re in the headset, the more rich and diverse your experience will be,” Woods explained. “You have to get over a little bit of fear that you might have that you’re going to run into something.” Armed with that advice, I went back in for a second tour.
- After you take your headset off, you can walk through a set of art installations including a spacey funhouse-mirror maze and a 10-minute video presentation titled “The Universe Within the Universe.” Stay until the end if you’re game for a “2001”-style acid trip. But if you’re sensitive to strobe lights, take an early exit and head for the gift shop.
Woods said “The Infinite” came together at a fortunate moment in time, with the International Space Station at its peak. It’s an open question whether a project like “The Infinite” could get done if its creators had to start from square one today.
“With the experiences that I’ve had working with the Russian space program, I do not believe that it would be tenable to begin a partnership right now, given the tensions between the two countries,” Woods said.
At the same time, NASA is ramping up its Artemis program to send astronauts to the moon. Will that be the next frontier for immersive experiences? Are people already thinking about doing virtual-reality moonshots?
“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Woods said with a laugh.
Timed-entry reservations for “The Infinite” at the Tacoma Armory (presented by Tacoma Arts Live) can be made via the Fever online ticketing service. Ticket prices range from $15 to $48. Age requirement: 8 or older. The experience is wheelchair-accessible, and lasts about 60 minutes.
This report has been updated to reflect the extension of the exhibit’s run in Tacoma until Sept. 5.
Want to bring the virtual space station into your home? The 3-D VR scenes from the station can be seen not only in “The Infinite,” but also in “Space Explorers: The ISS Experience,” an immersive series available for Oculus headsets.
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