Technology

An Extraterrestrial Site Visit

Lessons learned for live experiences from the second annual Virtual Reality Pitchfest in Brooklyn.

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Photo by Guerilla Science

When it comes to virtual reality, “we still really don’t know what’s possible,” said Adaora Udoji, a professor at New York University’s interactive telecommunications program and an adviser to the VR/AR Association, an international organization for companies and individuals working in virtual and augmented reality.

But attendees at the second annual Virtual Reality Pitchfest, where Udoji served as a judge, came away with a few clues. Held at the Made in NY Media Center in Brooklyn on March 1 , the event featured presentations from the creators of five virtual-reality projects in various stages of development, chosen from a pool of 50 applicants.

Judges — who also included digital publisher Charlie Melcher, president of Melcher Media Inc., and Loren Hammonds, a curator at the Tribeca Film Festival — evaluated the projects not on their use of technology but on their story concepts and how well they fit the virtual-reality medium.

Why story? Virtual reality is “all just shiny objects if you can’t figure out a reason why people care,” Melcher, the founder of the Future of StoryTelling Summit (FoST), told Convene. New tools may enable new kinds of storytelling, “but it is the stories that connect us.”

The judges’ pick was “Space Vacation,” a VR app under development by the educational nonprofit Guerilla Science, which is based in London and New York City. Space Vacation is a site visit of sorts — it allows participants to choose from three journeys launched from an “Intergalactic Travel Bureau”: a theme park on the site of the historic Apollo landing sites on the moon, a trip through the canyons on Mars, or a visit to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. The landscapes are built with VR software using a variety of NASA mission data, according to Olivia Koski, head of operations for Guerilla Science USA.

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Photo by Guerilla Science

The app is an extension of an ongoing Guerrilla Science initiative, which has installed interactive live experiences at festivals and as popup locations in Europe and the United States. Participants interact one-on-one with consultants, and enter “into a story that they are co-creating, which is important to the experience,” Koski said. “The framework of speaking about the moon or Mars as a possible vacation destination rather than the subject of a research mission suddenly makes arcane scientific facts about these places exciting and relevant to the average person.” Participants need to know what the weather is like, so they will know what to pack, she added, or how long it will take to get there, so they will know how much vacation time they need to save up.

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Photo by Guerrilla Science

The as-yet unreleased VR component of the Intergalactic Travel Bureau “is pretty new, so we are just beginning to experiment with it,” Koski said. “We have incorporated it into our live experience a time or two. It is incredibly fun to plan someone’s vacation, and then say, ‘Hey, would you like to go? We can bring you there with VR.’ And people are really stunned by what they see.”

It’s not hard to make the leap back down to Earth and imagine the potential that virtual reality has — not just for virtual site visits, but for enhancing live experiences anywhere that people meet.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.