I can’t believe what I see.
Hundreds of miles below me, the beautiful blue marble I call home is slowly spinning. As I soar, suspended in awe outside the International Space Station, the clouds and continents I’ve only ever seen from the ground become breathtaking, and my whole perspective of this mysterious planet is transformed.
What I struggle to grasp here are not the views themselves, stunning they are, but the fact that I am the one who experiences them, because I’m not a real astronaut and I’m not actually in space. I’m in a concrete ferry building in Richmond at Space Explorers: The Infinite, which is said to be the world’s one and only large-scale virtual reality immersive exploration of space.
The hour-long immersive experience created by Felix & Paul Studios and PHI Studio is divided into three segments, each carefully crafted to simulate a journey to the final frontier, beginning with a 35-minute virtual reality tour of the Space Station international. Using an Oculus VR headset, you are invited to explore a life-size digital replica of the station. With 12,500 square feet of walking space, “The Infinite” is considered the world’s largest in-person VR experience. You can move freely, guided by your curiosity and without being limited by the spatial limitations typical of virtual reality.
Scattered throughout the station are glowing orbs that, if you touch them, engulf you in immersive mini-clips from the Emmy Award-winning VR docuseries, “Space Explorers: The ISS Experience.” Produced by Felix & Paul Studios, in collaboration with Time Studios, NASA and several other international space agencies, the series made history as the biggest production ever shot in space.
“When you’re going through something like an expedition in space, there’s not much you can do by taking notes or taking photos with a DSLR camera,” said Félix Lajeunesse, co-founder of the experiment and creative director of the series. “There’s not much the mainstream media can do to bring this experience down to earth.”
But VR cameras allowed Lajeunesse and his team to authentically capture what it was like to be in space, but it didn’t happen overnight. It took a few years of knocking on NASA’s doors to get the ball rolling, and even longer to finish.
The production alone took about 3 years. Over six different expeditions, the series’ producers would collaborate with NASA to direct the astronauts operating the cameras aboard the ISS. Every few months, these expeditions would overlap, and astronauts would come in to replace their counterparts, handing over filming duties along the way.
As you observe the astronauts, they tinker with their tools, talk to you, and recount their actions in a casual, everyday way. It’s like you’re one of their teammates, right there in the station next to them. You are not a fly on the wall, you are one of them.
“When briefing the astronauts, we repeatedly emphasized that the camera should be considered a person,” Lajeunesse said. “When you interact with your medium as a human, it creates a seamless, naturalistic human experience, and the viewer will feel that.”
There is something to be said about everyday life, not only about the atmosphere but also about accessibility. The space has long been a point of discussion and culture, but the experience itself was reserved for pros and experts. Now, with companies like SpaceX leading space tourism, there’s this notion that space is somehow within reach, but only for those who can afford to pay. “The Infinite” challenges this ideology, providing everyday people with a previously unattainable experience, one that Felix says equates to our future:
“I have long believed that space exploration is something that can uplift the human spirit and advance human consciousness,” Lajeunesse said. “Think of the Apollo program and what it accomplished for mankind. The fact that humans could land on the moon showed everyone on earth that humans can do great things. Space exploration has the ability to help our civilization, and share that perspective with everyone on earth…it’s essential for the future of our planet.
While the ISS tour was more than enough to satisfy even the most intense celestial cravings, “The Infinite” isn’t quite over. Once your tour is over, you still have two stops left on your journey. Next up is another VR experience, and while you keep your headset on, you can sit down for this one. You sit in a row of theater chairs and watch a projection of the first-ever spacewalk captured in virtual reality. After that, you conclude your experience with an immersive guided tour of an art exhibit. Created specifically for “The Infinite” by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, the installations are kinetic and highly sensory, designed to symbolize your journey back to earth.
As I walk out of the gallery, I take a deep sigh, continuing to process what I just experienced. I may not have been to space, but it’s the closest I, or most people, for that matter, will likely ever get. It’s a lot to take in. The view from up there changes the way things look here. It’s a good change, however, a necessary change, perfect for inquisitive minds who are always looking for the big picture.
“SPACE EXPLORER: INFINITY”
Through: January 29
Where: Craneway Pavilion, 1414 Harbor Way S., Richmond
Tickets: $39.95 for adults, $24.95 for children (8-12 years old) and $34.95 for students; group packages also available; theinfiniteexperience.world/
Health and security: Not recommended for people with claustrophobia, epilepsy, sensitivity to light, heart problems; more details at theinfiniteexperience.world/
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