Image courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios

Enter The INFINITE: inside the ISS with Felix & Paul Studios

March 25, 2021
For all our fascination with space, only 568 people have ever been there. Even fewer know what it’s like to live there day to day. But that could soon change if Felix & Paul Studios have anything to say about it. 

While the Montreal-based immersive entertainment studio can’t actively blast you up, for the last two years they’ve been capturing the daily routines of astronauts for those on the ground, hoping to demystify a place that most of us will never get to see firsthand. The result is Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, an immersive series that is now the biggest media project ever filmed in space. 

Created in partnership with NASA and TIME Studios, Space Explorers launched in October 2020 as a VR experience for Oculus Quest 2. Part confessional, part guided tour, Space Explorers has already achieved something no other space documentary has come close to—making people feel like they are actually on the International Space Station (ISS). It’s one thing to watch people talk about those first emotions in space; it’s another to feel like they are sharing thoughts from across the room.
Image courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios
And that’s the point. Every stage of the Space Explorers project is supposed to feel like something you’ve never seen before, from the initial VR episodes to an upcoming exhibit that will not only let you walk through a 1:1 recreation of the ISS, but sit in the endless void of space (another first). It’s totally ambitious and there’s nothing else like it. And according to Felix & Paul Studios founders Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, it all began with a pitch.

“We just approached NASA and laid out a vision for what this could be,” says Raphaël. “We always knew we wanted to capture humans in space, but we also knew we had to earn our way there. So, we started on smaller projects, like capturing astronaut training, and over time built up enough goodwill to start talking about the logistics of Space Cameras.”

Filming in zero gravity

Filming aboard the space station is no small feat. Prep takes weeks, the astronauts have to be in the loop, and nothing you do can jeopardize the mission—you’re always second fiddle. The constraints of zero gravity and tight spaces provide another wrinkle when you are shooting 360° video, as your gear has to be specifically designed for the conditions. Enter the Space Camera, a modified Z CAM V1 Pro that has now captured over 200 hours of footage aboard the space station. 
Image courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios
Since Felix & Paul Studios personnel are not actually on the ISS, astronauts do the filming for them. The footage is then sent via a remote connection to Felix & Paul Studios, who edit and stitch it together from a pandemic-safe location in Montreal. The joke around the office has become, “We are the only people in the galaxy still in production.” Jokes aside, the team has been working hard to finish new episodes as fast as they can, using a combination of their own player apps and a suite of Unreal Engine tools first developed on a Jim Henson-influenced AR project called The Storyteller.
Image courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios
The second episode, “Advance,” premiered March 16 at SXSW as a first-run exclusive for anyone with a virtual conference pass. Like the pilot, the episode will continue to explore the facets of ISS life including new scientific experiments, the departure of three astronauts, and a reflection on the vital role of women in space. Two additional episodes are planned, and will debut in the fall and winter of 2021.

The INFINITE in motion

From the start, Space Explorers was always supposed to transcend a single medium. In fact, the goal is to make the ISS Experience available to as many people as possible. Felix & Paul Studios partnered with PHI Studio, renowned for its expertise and know-how in the presentation of virtual reality, augmented reality, and extended reality works, to create a traveling exhibit named The INFINITE.
 
Video courtesy of PHI Studio

The INFINITE is no simple reskin of the available footage; it’s a multi-tiered experience that may set the standard for large-scale, location-based events. Spread out over 10,000 square feet, The INFINITE is a four-month exhibition that will give 137,700 people (or 150 per hour) the chance to explore a life-size 3D replica of the ISS as stylized starbeings. As they roam, a mixture of 3DoF/6DoF VR, spatial audio, and interactive hotspots act as experience sweeteners, immersing the attendee even more as they navigate VR videos, a multisensory reproduction of a liftoff, and what for some may be the main attraction—an immersive space walk, captured live outside of the ISS.
Image courtesy of PHI Studio
Since 35 minutes of the experience is built on interactive VR, Felix & Paul Studios and PHI Studio returned again to Unreal Engine to create a real-time environment that could evoke a perpetual state of wonder. 

“One of the biggest challenges of this experience is a visitor’s movement within the space. It’s not A to B. There are transitions between 6DoF and stereoscopic content that have to go smoothly. There are interactive elements that require precise tracking, and general things that just need to be avoided for everything to feel seamless,” says Pierre Blaizeau, Head of Technology at Felix & Paul Studios. “Unreal was crucial in this process, offering the high performance and rendering we needed to keep people locked in, and the starbeing effects that made it so fun to design.”
Image courtesy of PHI Studio
Getting 150 people through the door every hour also means there won’t be one ISS in the room; instead, several are required, all arranged in a Tetris-like configuration within Unreal Engine for maximum occupancy. And while the experience was created with free roaming at heart, there are still beats Felix & Paul Studios and PHI Studio want people to hit. Trigger points, for instance, are scattered throughout to make use of the exclusive footage Felix & Paul Studios has been capturing for the last two years. Because Unreal Engine got its start in games, it’s naturally primed for motion capture, which has helped the team incorporate the type of hand tracking needed for object activations.
Image courtesy of PHI Studio
The engine came through again when it came time to add sound. One of the benefits of capturing over 200 hours of stereoscopic footage is you also get over 200 hours of volumetric audio. And any proponent of VR will tell you, anytime you can activate another sense you increase immersion. But for Felix & Paul Studios, it’s even bigger than that. An astronaut’s day consists of more than just the things they see, it’s also what they hear. In The INFINITE, visitors will finally be able to hear the same sounds astronauts encounter 254 miles above Earth, connecting both parties even closer together.

Into space: the next wave of cinematic VR

In a project where everything is impressive, The INFINITE’s space walk might take the cake. This moment comes near the end of the experience and finds attendees following the astronauts outside where they work on the ISS. The goal is to give the viewer something very few people on Earth have ever experienced—access to the “Overview Effect.” This is a shift in awareness that astronauts report when they see Earth for the first time in space. According to them, the idea of seeing Earth suspended in a black void makes it feel small and fragile, and makes them feel more connected to the idea of all of us living as one in service of the planet and each other. Sound profound? Apparently it is, and The INFINITE seeks to let everyone experience it for themselves.
Image courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios
Felix & Paul Studios and PHI Studio don’t just leave you hanging outside, though. When asked how they keep people from feeling unnerved by the vastness of space, they said they added a floor.

“We feel grounded when there's actual ground beneath us, so we made sure to build that into Unreal,” says Raphaël. “The same grid is inside the ISS, but it’s much bigger outside to bring people comfort. It’s very stylized and still lets us show the stars below, so you have a good balance between a necessary device and all the realistic sights that actually make you feel like you’re out there.”

Immersive reality...at home?

With the The INFINITE launch looming, it’s all hands on deck. The first stop will be in Montreal, and barring COVID-19 restrictions it will then continue to another major North American city every few months for five years. Target cities currently include Houston, New York, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, and Los Angeles.

In keeping with their mission, Felix & Paul Studios are also designing The INFINITE App to connect as many people as they can to the ISS content they are producing. At first, this will act as a companion piece to the series and exhibit, but over time it may very well grow into a portal that enables you to take in an INFINITE-like experience from home. 

“There’s so much to do when it comes to this project, but that’s how we like it. It’s always been our dream,” says Raphaël. “Every time you see the footage come in, it makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself and we’ve always wanted to share some of that world. And the astronauts do too. They tell us this is the first time they’ve been able to show their friends and family what their lives are really like. That’s exciting to them, and to be honest it’s the real reason why we can keep this whole thing alive. They are our biggest supporters.”
Image courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios

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