Monday, October 17, 2022

Space, the VR Frontier


My daughters treated me to an extraordinary experience yesterday. "Space Explorers: The Infinite" is a pop-up virtual reality trip to the International Space Station that, as far as I can tell, is only available in Richmond, California through the end of November (a previous installation in Tacoma is over). I've wanted to be an astronaut my entire life. This is as close as I will get.

The front door.

Wearing VR headsets, you and your party walk into a room the size of a basketball court with about 20 other people. But of course it doesn't look like that to you--as far as you can tell, you're floating through space into a kind of translucent CGI model of the ISS. Your own body sparkles like you're beaming up to the Enterprise. You can walk through the ISS layout while other visitors fade in and out around you as glowing avatars. That's all well and good, and kind of what I expected. Fine, fun, neat.

Heading in. It was not crowded yesterday.

But the experience gets dialed up to infinity (and beyond!) when you touch one of the many glowing orbs floating through the model. Suddenly you're aboard the actual ISS, standing right beside real astronauts doing tasks, greeting newly arriving colleagues, getting a haircut, throwing a football. SpaceX sent VR cameras to the ISS in 2019 to get this immersive footage. It's amazing. Breathtaking.

I can't emphasize this enough: YOU ARE THERE. IN SPACE. Full-scale 3-D, 360 degrees around. Floating weightlessly beside real astronauts who are the same size as you. You look up, the space station modules extend for dozens of meters away. You look down, another corridor stretches beneath your feet. 

That's what really got me: the SCALE of the thing. I know the dimensions of the ISS, but to be inside these modules that each feels about as big as a railroad freight car or a transit bus, was stunning. It's the difference between knowing and experiencing.

A good overview of how the experience is laid out.

Better: toward the end, you're directed to a chair for more VR, and I think the reason they need you to sit down is that most people would find floating freely in open space so disorienting they'd flop to the floor like a carp. You look to your left, and an astronaut opens the ISS cupola windows to peer out at you. You look up, and two astronauts back slowly out of a hatch to do a spacewalk. You look down, left, right, and the disk of the Earth covers nearly half the universe as you fly over Italy and across the Mediterranean. The ISS is an enormous, complex machine stretching away in every direction around you, and YOU ARE THERE.

I confess, I may have shed a tear inside my VR kit. It moved me. I could've spent an hour just flying over the Earth like Superman.

The whole thing takes 35-40 minutes to go through. I see that an adult ticket costs $44 (less for children and students). It's worth it. In addition, there are more floating orbs than anyone could touch in one visit, so everyone gets a different experience and I'm sure repeat visits would be different every time.

I don't know if other versions of this are or will be available elsewhere. They must be. If you're a space nut who gets the opportunity, take it. I can't promise it'll change your life, but you'll never forget it.

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