Since the beginning of time, we’ve looked up at the night sky, imagining what else might be out there, trying to give meaning to life by wanting to understand the origins of where we came from. Science and technology has brought us closer to understanding the mysteries of the universe, and now through VR, we have the opportunity to visit the far reaches of the cosmos and even witness the birth of a star.
Eliza McNitt discovered filmmaking through science and is best known for her work in film and documentaries. “I want people to experience a connection to science and be able to access this in a very universal way. I wanted to create poetry that you could experience through science,” said McNitt about this project. “VR was the only way to tell this story because I wanted to make people feel as if they were floating through the cosmos… to transport people into another world through virtual reality.”
Fistful of Stars, McNitt’s first VR piece made in collaboration with Intel, premiered last week at SXSW and was demoed with the Positron Voyager chairs, also used by the Mummy Zero Gravity VR experience. Fistful of Stars’ booth also featured a hologram of the Hubble Space Telescope that intrigued all the VR enthusiasts waiting in line to experience the piece.
Moments after you put on the headset, you find yourself drifting past the Hubble Space Telescope in Earth’s orbit. You feel weightless in the chair as you drift across our Galaxy and arrive at the center of the Orion Nebula, one of the most photographed and studied celestial objects in the sky. The visuals are stunning and seem so real, considering everything is based off of actual Hubble imagery. “The Orion Nebula is the birth place of star life, and it’s the only place where it felt like this film could exist” said McNitt.
McNitt worked closely with scientists and astrophysicists, including Dr. Mario Livio who was the narrator of the piece, in order to visualize data and convey the feeling of being inside the Orion Nebula. “I was fortunate to work with scientists who were able to articulate their findings which allowed me to understand the visuals of what color a star is when it dies, or what it looks like when a star moves,” commented McNitt. “They were able to not just speak about it scientifically, but also visually, so we could artistically interpret these photo-realistic simulations of iconic Hubble telescope images.”
The music of the VR experience is from The Hubble Cantata, composed by Paola Prestini about the birth, life and death of a star; the music inspired McNitt to create a visual story in VR. Last summer the song was performed live by a 30-piece ensemble and a 100-person choir for thousands in Brooklyn. During this performance the audience viewed the experience through Google Cardboard headsets while experiencing the live music. The soundtrack in the piece however, was re-recorded in 3D audio.
While experiencing a star being born in VR, I was able to reflect on our place in the cosmos, and realized again just how small we actually are. You can’t help but think about cosmic connections. Fistful of Stars creates a beautiful fusion between science and art by showing the potential of VR and creates a path for future exploration of the cosmos.
Fistful of Stars will be released publicly later this year, and McNitt is now working on an interactive episodic experience in collaboration with Intel inspired by the photograph of the Pale Blue Dot. Each episode will bring to life a different interactive world that is a vision of our own future at the fringes of our solar system while also showing the fragility of our own planet.
In the words of the great Carl Sagan, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”