Fifty years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, space travel is still the final frontier technology hasn’t mastered.
While the globe now feels a much smaller place, space is still the ‘outer’ world the vast majority of us will never get to visit. But what would it be like if you could?
That’s the question one-time NASA artist in residence, Laurie Anderson poses in her artist residency as part of Manchester International Festival. To The Moon, is an expanded virtual reality work in development with the artist Hsin-Chien Huang, which allows you the freedom to fly through space, land on the moon and step to the precipice of its dark side – if you dare.
The half-hour experience, in the Studio space of Manchester’s Royal Exchange, is split into two parts. The first is a gently immersive experience, in a dimly-lit room, surrounded by planets, flying atoms and meteorites. It gives a little sense of being in space, but it is really an atmospheric holding room for the full VR experience that is to come.
It’s an intimate setting, with just seven head-sets for people to use at any one time. When one becomes free, a member of the flight team comes to take you to your seat, and you’re given a headset and two controllers ready for the space mission ahead. Don’t worry – the seats are far enough apart that you’re not going to get whacked by another enthusiastic astronaut and there are staff watching to check you’re not wandering any further than your eyes and mind will take you.
Wearing the headset gives full 360-degree visuals. Even with feet firmly on the ground, it’s hard to keep quiet when the walls of the room drop away and then the floor to propel you into space.
We’re warned before-hand that the experience can illicit strong emotional and physiological responses. At times I was both exhilarated and terrified – but mostly terrified. I’m one of those people who feels queasy on a glass floor and even though I clearly was safe in the room, my mind told me I really was falling through space, and it was hard not to believe it. The effect is so realistic, even when you look to the side you see your own shadow.
Setting foot on the moon was a calmer experience – even when my arms turned into giant spider’s legs – it somehow felt safer than the chasm of a black hole. In many ways it is a dream-like experience. Images appear and then dissolve, and just as you become comfortable exploring a world, you’re thrust into another.
As part of the experience you enter moon craters, soar over mountain peaks, walk with star-like dinosaurs and ride through snow on a donkey. When a band on your wrist turns red, you’re also given the miraculous power to fly.
If I was to do it again, I’d like to think I would run to the end of the precipice, super-hero like and leap into infinity. As someone doing VR for the first-time, I feel I was too cautious. I flew but I didn’t soar – although my heart rate did.
I don’t know how close the experience feels to real space travel, but this immersive technology is certainly opening new worlds, and I can’t wait to see where Anderson, who is currently developing a VR opera set on the moon, takes us next.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Laurie Andersons To The Moon is at the Royal Exchange Theatre as part of MIF19 from 11-20 July 2019.