Immersive ‘Space Explorers: The Infinite’ boldly goes where no VR experience has gone before – East Bay Times

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I can’t believe what I’m seeing.
Hundreds of miles below me, the beautiful, blue marble I call home is slowly turning. As I hover, suspended in awe outside the International Space Station, the clouds and continents I’ve only ever seen from the ground up come into stunning focus, and my entire perspective of this mysterious planet is transformed.
What I’m struggling to grasp here is not the views themselves, stunning as they may be, but the fact that I’m the one experiencing them, because I’m not an actual astronaut, and I’m not actually in space. I’m in a concrete ferry building in Richmond, at Space Explorers: The Infinite, said to be the world’s one and only large-scale immersive VR exploration of space.
The hour-long immersive experience created by Felix & Paul Studios and PHI Studio, is divided into three segments, each carefully designed to simulate a journey to the final frontier, beginning with a 35-minute virtual reality tour of the International Space Station. Using an Oculus VR headset, you’re invited to explore a full-scale digital replica of the station. With 12,500 square feet of walking room, “The Infinite” is said to be the world’s largest in-person VR experience. You can roam free, guided by your curiosity, and unrestrained by VR’s typical spatial limitations.
Dispersed throughout the station are glowing orbs, which if you touch, engulf you into 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 largest production ever shot in space.
“When you experience something like an expedition to space, there’s only so much you can do by taking notes or snapping photos with a DSLR camera,” said Félix Lajeunesse, co-founder of the experience and creative director for the series. “There’s only so much that traditional media can accomplish in bringing that experience back 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 doors at NASA to get the ball rolling, and even longer to actually finish.
Production alone took about 3 years to complete. Over the course of 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 overlapped, and astronauts would come to relieve their counterparts, passing the baton of filming duties along the way.
As you observe the astronauts, they tinker with their tools, talking to you and narrating their actions in an everyday, casual manner. It’s like you’re one of their crewmates, right there in the station next to them. You’re not a fly on the wall, you’re one of them.
“When we briefed the astronauts, we stressed over and over that the camera is to be considered as a person,” Lajeunesse said. “When you interact with your medium as a fellow human, it creates a transparent, naturalistic human experience, and the spectator will feel that.”
There’s something to be said here about the everyday, not just in regards to atmosphere but also accessibility. Space has long since been a point of discussion and culture, but the experience itself was reserved for the pros and the experts.  Now, with companies like SpaceX leading the charge of space tourism, there is this notion that space is somehow within grasp, but only for those who can afford to pay. “The Infinite” is challenging this ideology, providing everyday people with a previously inaccessible experience, one that Felix says is tantamount to our future:
“I’ve been convinced for a long time now that space exploration is something that can elevate the human spirit and advance human consciousness,” Lajeunesse said. “Think about the Apollo program, and what it achieved for humanity. The fact that humans could land on the moon showed everybody on earth that humans can do great things. Space exploration has the capacity to help our civilization, and sharing that perspective to everyone down on earth…it’s critical 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 finished. After your tour has concluded, you still have two more stops along your journey. Next up is another VR experience, and while you keep your headset on, you do get to sit down for this one. You’re seated in a row of theater chairs, and view a screening of the first ever spacewalk captured in VR. After that, you conclude your experience with an immersive art exhibit walkthrough. Created specifically for “The Infinite” by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, the installations are kinetic and highly sensorial, designed to symbolize your journey back to earth.
As I exit the gallery, I take a deep sigh of breath, still processing what I just experienced. I might not have actually gone to space, but this is 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 how things look down here. It’s a good change, though, a necessary one, perfect the curious minds out there who are always looking for the bigger picture.
Through: Jan. 29
Where: Craneway Pavilion, 1414 Harbour Way S., Richmond
Tickets: $39.95 for adults, $24.95 for children (8-12 years old), and $34.95 for students; group bundles also available;
Health & safety: Not recommended for those with claustrophobia, epilepsy, light sensitivity, heart problems; more details on
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