If you were one of the first pioneers to Mars — headed millions of miles away from your home planet for years or even a lifetime — how would you want to keep in touch with people back on Earth? Virtual reality company 8i thinks it might be through super-realistic holographic messages, and it’s testing the technology with a series of recordings that will be released early next year. Messages to Mars, a set of virtual reality experiences released through Time Inc.’s Life VR program, will include detailed renderings of astronaut Buzz Aldrin and performer Reggie Watts, with more "notable participants" coming in the future.
8i’s volumetric video system uses arrays of cameras to create detailed 3D scans of its human subjects, which are then dropped into virtual landscapes — the company shot the footage of Aldrin on a capture stage using 41 different cameras shooting simultaneously. Its work appeared at Sundance early this year, and it’s bringing a short Vive preview of Aldrin’s Messages to Mars clip to this week’s VR On the Lot event in Los Angeles.
While there are periodic issues with artifacting and detail level in the demo, it nevertheless feels more like watching a three-dimensional, holographic recreation of a character than a typical 360-degree video would. How real? I found myself profoundly disturbed by the fact that Aldrin wasn’t looking me in the eye unless I stood directly in front of him, a kind of uncanny valley side effect that I doubt would have even occurred to me in a normal VR video.
The demo experience is impressive, but still short and limited
But the current experience, a work in progress, is still limited and a bit thin. The audience can move around to see Aldrin speak from any possible vantage point, but — as the aforementioned eye contact issue demonstrates — it’s still just watching the astronaut give a prepared speech without any degree of interaction. The HTC Vive demo essentially consists of two scenes: one places the viewer on the surface of the moon next to the Apollo Lunar Module, with Aldrin appearing to address the viewer and talk about his larger aspirations for space exploration, and a second takes place in space alongside a visualization of a concept vehicle, with commentary from Aldrin. (The Reggie Watts sequences weren’t part of the preview.)
Messages to Mars will be released on Life VR’s Google Cardboard app, and Time Inc. will release a Buzz Aldrin experience for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift as well. While Life VR is publicly releasing the videos, they’re being recorded as part of a research partnership between 8i and R&D company SIFT. The initiative delivered VR experiences to participants in the NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), who recently spent a year simulating life on Mars in a solar-powered dome habitat. It’s meant to see if VR — or more specifically, compelling virtual recreations of real people — can ameliorate the isolation of living in a space colony.
"We believe the way virtual reality can capture your senses can help astronauts feel more connected to Earth, and offer ways to combat the sensory monotony that result from such prolonged durations of isolation," says SIFT senior research scientist Peggy Wu. The study will continue when the next HI-SEAS mission begins in 2017, and Wu says that early results are "promising," although not definitive or complete.
"We believe the way virtual reality can capture your senses can help astronauts feel more connected to Earth."
Outside 8i and SIFT, other initiatives — like the Balboa Foundation — have posited that virtual reality might fight isolation more generally. But much of the discussion has focused on shared virtual environments, not pre-recorded messages like Aldrin’s.
In the long term, 8i CEO Linc Gasking describes his company’s technology as a way to capture both professional performances and memories from private individuals. These could be created either in a studio or a kind of 3D scanning "photo booth," or even an ordinary mobile phone — which people can already use to capture limited, non-moving 3D scans through other software. They could be played back through virtual reality headsets, but could theoretically also work in augmented reality platforms like HoloLens.
Will this be notably better for people living in isolation than traditional video? And will it be something that the rest of us find compelling as more than a novelty? Without more time and a more complete experience, it’s difficult to say. But it’s certainly one more step for virtual reality — even if it doesn’t turn out to be a giant leap for human communication.
Clarification: The version we saw was an early preview of next year's experience.