Most people will never get to step foot aboard the International Space Station. But a traveling virtual reality exhibit is giving visitors some understanding of what life is like on the orbiting research facility.
Called The Infinite, the exhibit invites attendees to don Meta Quest 2 headsets and stroll through a facsimile of the ISS, with the ability to explore a transparent virtual model of the station and trigger video footage of astronaut life on board.
“The idea was really to capture what life aboard the ISS was like,” says Paul Raphaël, cofounder of Félix & Paul Studios and cocreator of The Infinite. “It’s really about the humans who are up there.”
Montreal-based Félix & Paul also produced Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, an Emmy-winning VR film series about life aboard the station, for which astronauts operated special VR cameras engineered to work aboard and even stationed outside the ISS. The Space Explorers crew captured more than 200 hours of footage, some of which is available to those attending The Infinite, where it can be triggered on demand at specific sites in the installation.
Currently on display at the Tacoma Armory in Washington state through September 5, The Infinite sees roughly 150 visitors per hour, which means that the team behind the project also had to ensure that visitors can see each other—albeit as avatars within the virtual landscape—so that they don’t collide as they explore the exhibit.
Essentially all the computation is handled by the Quest devices themselves, so visitors don’t have to wear any other bulky equipment. In fact, they’re less weighed down than they’d be at a typical laser tag game. And an ultraviolet cleaning system is designed to keep the headsets safe amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The audience is free to roam, unencumbered except [for] the headset itself,” says Phoebe Greenberg, The Infinite’s chief creative officer and founder of PHI Studio.
The exhibit saw more than 70,000 visitors in Montreal before moving to Houston, where some astronauts who helped capture footage were able to visit and relive their experiences. For some of the engineers and others who worked on designing and building the International Space Station, the exhibit offered the first time they could experience life aboard the facility as the astronauts did.
“This was the first time they felt that they could see the work they created over time in a really informative way and emotional way,” Greenberg says.
The Infinite continues to evolve to make it more seamless and iron out some kinks. And new footage, like a spacewalk that hadn’t yet been filmed at the start of the Montreal run, has been added. “We are learning at every single level,” Raphaël says.
The exhibit, which travels from place to place loaded onto about eight trucks, will next make its way to Richmond, California, in the Bay Area, where it will bring a new set of earthbound visitors to space virtually.
As Raphaël says, “The medium is the closest you can get to being up there.”