The Martian VR Experience is out of this world

Is this the future of cinematic storytelling?

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“You’re way too low. You need to get back on course!” I’m soaring through space high above Mars, steering my way towards the ship that’s going to take me back to Earth after hundreds of days stranded on the Red Planet. I’m changing direction using the air escaping from my pierced left glove, which I’m holding behind my back so I can move forward. I look over my shoulder and see the rocket I used to escape hanging against a Martian backdrop; above and around me, there’s only the void. My return home might be in jeopardy.

I change my left hand’s angle and approach a white beam of light, where my commander is waiting to drag me onto her waiting spacecraft. She wraps me in her arms, and I feel a little jolt when our helmets clunk together. Having finally achieved relative safety, I drop the controllers I’ve been holding and lift the Oculus Rift headset I’ve been wearing for the last 20 minutes into the hands of a nearby attendant. I’ve just finished The Martian VR Experience, which is coming to a virtual reality headset near you sometime this year, and the moments I just spent hurtling through the solar system are giving me a new appreciation for the solid footing of this Las Vegas nightclub.

martian vr solar panels

The Martian VR Experience is 20th Century Fox’s first step into the world of VR entertainment, and I had a chance to demo it using several different technologies at a CES event last night. It allows users to virtually inhabit the body of Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut Matt Damon plays in Ridley Scott’s 2015 sci-fi epic The Martian, and trace his journey from near-death to daring planetary getaway.

Bar tables at The Library section of The Cosmopolitan’s Marquee nightclub held piles of Samsung’s Gear VR units, and a full wall of the room was dominated by HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets. (There were three demo units in total, and each headset was hooked up to a powerful gaming PC and a D-Box rumble chair.) Near the back of the bar, a makeshift theater held a single Rift-chair-PC rig; this was Fox’s venue for limited trials of the full 20-minute experience. I tried different elements of The Martian using all three headsets: a short trailer using the Gear VR, rover-driving segments using both the Vive and the Rift, and the full experience running on the Rift.

The trailer's just a snack, not a meal

Let’s start with the trailer, which offers the kind of VR experience that serves to fuel an appetite instead of satisfying a hunger. In between a title card and basic credits, I was able to look around still, familiar environments from the movie like Watney’s rover and cliffs overlooking the base. There wasn’t anything to do except stare, but the scenery was nice, and 360 degree environments were linked by selected stills from the movie that floated against a starry background. If you have a Gear VR, you can actually experience this for yourself right now: the trailer was released alongside the headset’s consumer edition in November.

After checking out the trailer, I tried the same five-minute segment of the full experience on both the Vive and the Rift. A short calibration sequence led me into a seat in Watney’s rover, where I was tasked with driving the last few hundred feet to the Ares IV rocket that’s going to bring Watney to his rescuers. My first shot at the rover ride involved the consumer edition of the Vive that’ll be made available in April, and it was hooked up to one of the D-Box rumble seats. I steered the rover around huge mounds of rock using a console-mounted joystick, pushing forward to accelerate. When I pulled my hand back or released my grip on the stick by letting go of the Vive controller’s trigger, the seat yanked back with the force of the deceleration.

martian vr warning wrist

The rover was equipped with a mini-console full of toggles I could flip on and off with my left hand, including a navigator and a media player. Jessica Chastain’s character in the film is a disco aficionado, whose music collection features heavily in both the movie and the VR experience. But we were also in a nightclub, which led to a funny moment where Cheryl Lynn’s "Got to Be Real" and Gloria Gaynor’s "I Will Survive" were playing at the same time.

A few minutes after finishing, I attempted the same demo on the Rift with an inactive rumble chair. The loss of the rumble chair’s physicality had a profound impact on the experience: even though I found the glancing smoother on the Rift than the Vive, I couldn’t help but feel a little motion sickness as I piloted the rover unmoored from any sort of virtual ground. (It didn’t help that my eyepiece was a little foggy, the result of several demos in quick succession.) This could pose a problem for the final, public version of The Martian VR Experience — there aren’t going to be many end-users with access to a hard-wired rumble chair in their living rooms, and some of them may be more prone to motion sickness than I am — but I’d characterize it as manageable based on my rumble-free experience.

After wrapping my partial demos, I went through the full experience in its near-final form. I was taken through almost every major scene in the movie, with interactive segments linked together by clips from the movie that slowly faded in and gobbled the screen. I glided down to Mars while receiving a mission briefing from Peña and watched Watney’s body rise from the sand after the massive storm that serves as the movie’s catalyst. A quasi-tutorial sequence involved throwing potatoes into labelled bins before using a lit torch to ignite a reaction. Epic’s Unreal Engine powers the experience, and its physics shone during the potato segment. A teddy bear sitting on a laboratory scale had weight when I lifted it up, and I could depress the scale and watch the weight change with the pressure; piling spare potatoes and bags of waste on the scale had the same effect. (One potential opportunity for calibration: anything fragile I picked up (like ceramics) instantly shattered under the force of my grip.)

The Martian promotional stills (FOX) Image: Fox

The potato tutorial led into a series of more complicated, physically involved tasks. I used a crane to lift solar panels onto the rover’s trailer as a windstorm howled around me; I worked through the rover sequence demoed above; I pressed buttons and flipped switches to jettison weight from my rocket and watched as parts flew out over the Martian landscape. Before I knew it, I was floating through space and reuniting with my crew. (New audio recorded specifically for the VR experience by Michael Peña and Chastain gives these sequences some narrative grounding.) The only major piece of the movie that wasn’t implemented in a satisfying way was the hub breach that ravages Watney’s crops. The VR experience bridges this section by having you stand outside as a piece of debris flies at you; once it’s finished, you watch a clip or two and move onto the next segment. One of the movie’s most exciting sequences deserves a bigger role in its VR form.

There’s still a chance it could be included. "We’re not totally done with it," said Ted Schilowitz, 20th Century Fox’s resident futurist and a director at the Fox Innovation Lab. "We have a few months before the Oculus and the Vive come out, so there’s still a lot of tweaking and finishing and final spit-and-polish that’s going to happen. There are certain sequences that’ll be a little longer in time. You tried it pretty close to the final [version], but we’re still working on it." Schilowitz is the person responsible for nudging the company towards new technologies and trends, and he worked closely with director Robert Stromberg and executive producer Ridley Scott on The Martian VR Experience.

When I tell Schilowitz about my experience with the impostor disco songs and the weight of the potatoes, his eyes light up. "One of the things that’s so intriguing about this medium is creating the illusion that something’s actually happening to you," said Schilowitz. "Am I believing this is actually happening to me? I’m no longer watching a movie or television show; this is actually happening around me."

There’s an argument to be made that any cinematic VR experience is primarily dependent on the thematic elements of its source material. The Martian is a fantastical, daring adventure through the solar system. Who wouldn’t want to try their hand at virtual Martian botany or fly through an atmosphere with a depressurized suit? How is VR going to enrich romantic comedies and brooding family dramas? Schilowitz believes a movie’s themes and setting matter less than its pure narrative aspects, and his team’s work backs it up: their first VR project revolved around Reese Witherspoon’s solitary hiking adventure Wild. "If it’s a good story, it can make a good VR experience — if it’s crafted well. I think a great story is a great story, and a great story demands that you can take full advantage of this medium," said Schilowitz.

"If it's a good story, it can make a good vr experience"

Most of the consumer-relevant details regarding The Martian VR Experience are still unavailable, and in some cases they haven’t been internally determined yet. 20th Century Fox’s can’t make any promises regarding the device’s price, its release date, or whether or not it’ll be released in instalments. All it can confirm is that the experience will come to the Rift, Vive, and Gear VR in full by the end of the year. The studio’s also working on similar experiences for its other films, but those are even more vague, left unnamed and slapped with a basic "to be determined." (An October report from The New York Times suggested Alien, Life of Pi, Black Swan, and Gone Girl are all on the studio’s development shortlist.) The Martian VR Experience was compelling enough to make the wait for more details painful. At its least involved, it was a welcome chance to re-immerse myself in a world that already felt fully realized in movie form. At its best, I completely left the nightclub behind. I was too busy driving, climbing, gliding, and fighting my way back home.

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