The International Space Station hums around me, the melodic sounds of the vehicle floating in empty space seeming eerily similar to the rhythm of breath: constant and airy and alive. All around me, astronauts perform routine tasks or eat freeze-dried food — it looks so real it’s as if I’m watching someone’s memories or recalling my very own.
I’m not really on the International Space Station (this would be a whole ‘nother story), but on a life-size replica of the ISS that has landed in Tacoma. “The Infinite,” which bills itself as the world’s largest virtual reality experience, attempts the massive feat of making human spaceflight accessible to those with their feet on the ground.
The hourlong experience moves seamlessly through seven chapters: an artistic multisensory reproduction of a liftoff; onboarding (where visitors get fitted with VR headsets); ISS virtual exploration (which moves through four chapters of its own — adaptation, progress, unity and expansion); the virtual spacewalk; an audiovisual installation from Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda; “the wormhole” (an infinity room corridor representing a return to Earth through a wormhole); and “the origin,” representing the return to Earth through sensory awakening.
In each chapter of the ISS virtual exploration, glowing orbs hover in space onboard and outside the ISS. If touched (or, more realistically, blindly swiped at, since you can’t actually see anything), the scene around you fades to black before you’re briefly transported once again — you may find yourself at the center of a planet’s lazy orbit among the cosmos or in a scene with an astronaut narrating a moment frozen in time, painting a portrait of the work being done above Earth.
“Virtual reality is based on the sentiment and the feeling of presence and eventually transcending the screen,” said Felix Lajeunesse, co-founder and creative director of Felix & Paul Studios, on a recent phone call. Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël have created countless virtual reality experiences through Felix & Paul Studios since the company’s inception in 2013, but the dream of transporting audiences to an out-of-this-world experience always left, “and it took us a decade to be in a position to successfully do that.”
“The Infinite” is created with more than 250 hours of 3D video footage shot aboard and outside the ISS over the course of almost three years and six different NASA expeditions — but before the cameras started rolling, years of creative and technological preparation went into the project
When Felix & Paul Studios,” NASA for the first time in 2016, “they were aware of virtual reality because they had been using it for training purposes but the concept of using it as outreach and a way to communicate with the world to tell the story was entirely new, Lajeunesse said.
“There were so many things that we had to figure out on that journey,” Lajeunesse said, from spending two years from 2016-18 following astronauts on Earth while they prepared for future missions, to collaborating with other space agencies from around the world, to finally taking the journey to space on the ISS, which was not an easy feat.
Building the technology to film both inside and outside the ISS required the creation of a 360-degree camera that could withstand spaceflight. Once in space, the astronauts on the ISS carried out the rest of the work, from placing the camera to transfer the data to being the “protagonists of the story. You see them as the heroes of this narrative that we built, so it demanded a lot of involvement from the astronauts,” Lajeunesse said.
Back on Earth, the journey had just begun, in a way.
“With the robust content [filmed in space], we really wanted to ensure that there was an elegant way that people could experience this extraordinary achievement,” said Phoebe Greenberg, chief creative officer of “The Infinite” and the founder of PHI Studio, a company that specializes in immersive installations. Along with Felix & Paul Studios, PHI brought the physical exhibit to life.
“The Infinite” finds a way to “address the opportunity of what it means to be borderless or to be able to have our presence somewhere else,” Greenberg said, while Lajeunesse adds that PHI Studio’s work evokes “an overview effect and this capacity to witness planet Earth as a whole, take a measure of its fragility and take a measure of the unique opportunity that we have to be protected by an atmosphere.”
“I really feel that [virtual reality] is a language of the future,” Greenberg said. The creation of “The Infinite” is an opportunity to pay homage to the recent resurgence of interest in space, she added, saying “that unites humanity in a way that what part [PHI Studio] can do to bring that to a larger audience is certainly a worthwhile quest.”
The spacewalk, which marks the last chapter of visitors’ virtual citizenship at “The Infinite” with a production of the first-ever spacewalk to be captured in cinematic VR, echoes the experience’s power to unite humanity. Multiple scenes follow the astronauts outside the ISS, concluding with a view of them preparing to float back up into the station. In their final moments in space, they look back and wave at us (and my heart exploded).
In that moment, it was as if the astronauts were saying “thank you” for coming along, and in turn, we were thanking them for bringing us — thanking them for their collaboration with Felix & Paul, their willingness to be trained, their work with the equipment, the poetry of the experience of “The Infinite” as a whole — all the things that made it possible to be sitting in a chair, waving right back at them.
- The virtual reality experience accommodates 150 people every hour. When exploring the ISS, you’ll see avatars of other participants, so don’t worry about bumping into others. In the center of each avatar, you’ll see a glowing light — a blue light indicates you’re looking at a stranger (who will only appear if they’re within 12 feet of you) while a yellow light represents members of your group (who will always be visible).
- During the 35-minute virtual reality portion of the exhibit, there are 65 orbs total. You’ll only have time to explore about 10, making the experience different for each visitor (and every visit).
- The virtual reality experience can be uncomfortable for some people, and it’s not recommended for people with heart problems, claustrophobia, a history of seizures or epilepsy or sensitivity to flashing lights or 3D. If you are prone to or happen to experience motion sickness or vertigo, you can still experience “The Infinite” through the use of a tablet and augmented reality technology or by watching a seated 360-degree immersive documentary.