The Story Behind LIFE VR’s Mars Experience

4 minute read

In 1936, when Henry R. Luce acquired LIFE magazine and turned it into a weekly dedicated to photojournalism, he wrote the following mission statement: “To see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.” Part of this sentiment resonates with Mia Tramz and, in some ways, guides her work as Managing Editor of LIFE VR. “It reads like a virtual reality pitch,” she says recalling the text. “After all, it tells us to take the readers to places where they can’t go, which is exactly what VR promises.”

And so, since for the time being, space remains, for most of us, inaccessible, it made sense to focus energies on creating an immersive experience that would take the spectators into the galaxy. And who best to lead the way than Buzz Aldrin, who with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, landed on the moon in 1969. In fact, the cover of the special edition of LIFE dedicated to the historical moment shows a close-up of him, with Armstrong and the lunar module Eagle reflected in his visor. “We have a long legacy of covering space exploration, especially Jeffrey Kluger, a senior writer here who wrote the book Lost Moon: the Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, which served as the basis for the movie Apollo 13. He had a relationship with Buzz, whom he reached out to with a proposal for a VR experience. Buzz responded very enthusiastically,” recalls Tramz.

The initial idea for such an immersive piece came out of a conversation at SXSW, where Linc Gasking introduced Tramz to room-scale, or volumetric, virtual reality. In other words, experiences where the viewer has the liberty, and agency, to move around the virtual space. He also showed her demos made by his company 8i, which focuses on creating holograms of humans to be used in VR, Augmented Reality or mixed realities stories. “From a photography point of view, we’re at a fascinating juncture,” says Gasking. “We’ve been representing our memories in two dimensions for centuries, starting with cave paintings and gradually moving towards more realistic representations, think paintings and pictures. Now that we’ve entered an era where we can capture our surroundings in three dimensions, we’re seeing the same phenomenon. At first, it was artists creating 3D portraits thanks to computer-generated imagery. Progressively, we’re able to record people from all angles at once in a photorealistic way.”

Cycling Pathways to Mars, the VR experience his team produced in collaboration with LIFE VR combines the recent advances he speaks of. The environment we find ourselves in — the moon, Mars, a spacecraft, floating on a platform in the atmosphere — was painstakingly designed using computer software. Thousands of images and sketches served as reference material. “Aldrin, who is extremely detail oriented, actually designed the spaceships you see. There was a lot of back and forth with our team. It took about ten thousand hours collectively to create a universe that was as accurate as it could be,” remembers Gasking. On the other hand, creating the hologram of the famed NASA astronaut, our guide in space, was much faster once the technology for it was available. “Buzz just walked on set, there was a clap, he delivered his lines and that was it,” says 8i’s co-founder.

Forty cameras spread out evenly around Aldrin recorded him explaining his thoughts on how to colonize Mars. An automated process then stitched all the footage into one. As a result, you can look at the legend from every angle without distortions. In fact, as you move left or right, his gaze and body position shifts so that he constantly faces you. “There’s such a high degree of realism that we’re noticing that people give the hologram personal space,” says the creator.

More than that, paired with visual decisions that orients the gaze — such as turning off the lights inside the spaceship when a movie of John F. Kennedy plays or having a prodigious ‘cycler’ spacecraft slowly fly over your head — having Aldrin present in such an uncanny way focuses our attention, no small feat when the viewer is free to look and move in any direction. “Even though it’s virtual, there’s something incredibly magical about the moment when you stand next to Buzz at the landing site on the moon and about hearing him tell you about his vision for the future as if he were right in front of you,” says Tramz.

Learn more about Cycling Pathways to Mars. The full experience is available on Steam and Viveport for the HTC Vive.

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