Stunning ‘Space Explorers’ VR experience has landed in Richmond

I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

Hundreds of miles below me, the beautiful, blue marble I call home slowly turns. As I hover, suspended in awe of the International Space Station, the clouds and continents I’ve only ever seen from the ground amaze me and change my entire perspective of this mysterious planet.

What I’m trying to get at here isn’t the views themselves, stunning as they may be, but the fact that I am one who experiences them because I’m not a real astronaut and I’m not actually in space. I’m in the concrete ferry building in Richmond, on Space Explorers: The Infinite, which is said to be the one and only large scale VR space exploration.

View of Earth from inside the ISS (courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios)
View of Earth from inside the ISS (courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios)

Created by Felix & Paul Studios and PHI Studio, the one-hour immersive experience is divided into three segments, each carefully designed to simulate the journey to the final frontier, starting with a 35-minute virtual reality tour of the International Space Station. Using an Oculus VR headset, you are invited to explore a full-scale digital replica of the station. With 12,500 square feet of walking room, “The Infinite” is billed as the largest personal VR experience in the world. You can move freely, guided by your curiosity and not limited by the typical spatial limitations of VR.

Dotted throughout the station are glowing orbs you touch that immerse you in immersive mini-clips from the Emmy Award-winning VR documentary “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.

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“When you experience something like a space expedition, there’s only so much you can take notes or shoot with a DSLR,” said Félix Lajeunesse, co-founder and creative director of the series. “There’s only so much traditional media can do to bring that experience back down to Earth.”

Guests enjoying The Infinite VR experience (Melissa Taylor/Courtesy of The Infinite)
Guests enjoying The Infinite VR experience (Melissa Taylor/The Infinite)

But VR cameras allowed Lajeunesse and his team to authentically capture what it’s like to be in space, but it didn’t happen overnight. It took several years of door-knocking at NASA to get off the ground, and even longer to actually finish.

The production itself took about 3 years. Over the course of six different expeditions, the series’ producers would work with NASA to direct the astronauts operating the cameras aboard the ISS. Every few months, these expeditions would overlap, with astronauts coming in to replace their counterparts, handing off the baton of filming duties along the way.

As you watch the astronauts fiddle with their instruments, talk to you, and narrate their exploits in an everyday, informal way. It’s like you’re one of their crew members, right on the station next to them. You’re not a fly on the wall, you’re one of them.

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“When we briefed the astronauts, we emphasized over and over that the camera had to be considered a person,” Lajeunesse said. “When you interact with your medium as a fellow human, it creates a transparent, naturalistic human experience, and the viewer feels it.”

There’s something to be said for the everyday, not only in terms of atmosphere, but also accessibility. The space has long been a subject of discussion and culture, but the experience itself has been reserved for professionals and experts. Now that companies like SpaceX are leading the charge in space tourism, there is a perception that space is somehow at our fingertips, but only for those who can afford to pay. “Infinity” challenges this ideology, providing a previously inaccessible experience to the mundane that Felix says equates to our future:

“I have long believed that space exploration is something that can lift the human spirit and advance human consciousness,” Lajeunesse said. “Think about the Apollo program and what it accomplished for mankind. The fact that humans could land on the moon showed everyone on Earth that humans could do great things. Space exploration has the ability to help our civilization and share that perspective with everyone down on Earth… it’s critical to the future of our planet.”

Guests admire Ryoji Ikeda's audiovisual art installation: "A universe within a universe" (Sean Mollitt / Courtesy of The Infinite)
Guests admire Ryoji Ikeda’s audiovisual art installation: “A Universe Within a Universe” (Sean Mollitt/Courtesy of The Infinite)

While a tour of the ISS was more than enough to satisfy even the most intense celestial appetites, “The Infinite” isn’t quite finished yet. After the tour, you have two more stops on the way. Next up is another VR experience, and while you’ve got your headset on, you’re going to have to sit down. You sit in a row of theater chairs and watch a screening of the first ever space mission captured in VR. You will then conclude your experience with an immersive guided tour of the art exhibition. The installations created especially for “The Infinite” by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda are kinetic and highly sensory, meant to symbolize your journey back to Earth.

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As I exit the gallery, I take a deep breath, still processing what I just experienced. I may not have actually gone into space, but this is as close as I, or most people, will probably ever get. There’s a lot of it. The view from above changes what it looks like here. It’s a good change, but a necessary one, to hone the curious minds out there that are always looking for the bigger picture.


‘SPACE EXPLORERS: THE INFININE’

(Courtesy of The Infinite)
(Courtesy of The Infinite)

Over: January 29

Where: Craneway Pavilion, 1414 Harbor Way S., Richmond

tickets: $39.95 for adults, $24.95 for children (ages 8-12), and $34.95 for students; group packages also available; endless experience.world/

Health and Safety: Not recommended for people with claustrophobia, epilepsy, sensitivity to light, heart problems; more details at theinfiniteexperience.world/

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