Spheres: Chorus of the Cosmos, Songs of Spacetime and Pale Blue Dot

Year: 2018

Directed and written by: Eliza McNitt

Produced by: Jess Engel, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel

Narrators: Millie Bobby Brown, Jessica Chastain and Patti Smith

Viewing System: Oculus Rift

Spheres is a high-production, award-winning educational experience––divided into three 10-minute chapters––that harnesses VR to take the user/experient deep inside our galaxy to witness everything from the birth of the universe, spacetime distortions, magnetic fields and gravitational waves to neutron stars and black holes. It’s a feast of sight and sound, where the forces at the heart of the cosmos have symphonies –– a full orchestra –– that the user is at the center of, and is often given the chance to conduct through guided controller/wand movements.

In fact, the entire experience is built around the idea of “song”. In the first chapter of the experience, narrated by Millie Bobby Brown, music and sounds are at center stage. In the second chapter, narrated by Chastain, light becomes the instrument by which we unravel gravitational waves and finally get pulled inside a black hole, and in the final chapter, in which we hear from Smith, we come full circle to sound, as an after effect of the Big Bang.

The idea is brilliant in its simplicity: make visible something that is invisible and unreachable, and that plays directly into the affordances of a medium like virtual reality.

Cosmic journeys in VR have been done before, including by McNitt herself in Fistful of Stars, but in a first the user/experient is given a chance to be part of the story through choreographed interactions that do not disrupt the experience but instead enhance its flow and continuity. Through gestures and controller movements, the user has the chance to push something into motion, uncover the next segment of the story, and manipulate and pull objects in space (in line with narrative). The interactions are not merely playful i.e. they’re not employed for empty or free-form exploration of the space (or just to give a shallow sense of presence), but they very much advance the narrative, which results in the user feeling not just present but powerful. Personally, I felt like a god at times, controlling elements in the expanse of the universe or the movements of waves and forces, and at others, I felt part of the bigger song of the cosmos, an indispensable element. The physical harmony also represented in sounds and music creates a sense of solid unity and evokes the quality of epics in VR form.

It wasn’t hard to follow the spoken instructions inside the experience –– again, they were woven smoothly into the narration, so they never felt disruptive or intrusive. As a science journalist, I thoroughly appreciated the writing and how the science was communicated –– in small parcels, without jargon or heavy technicalities, and with breathing spaces (bites of information were sandwiched between compelling visuals and sounds).

I also appreciate how the user/experient was cued to look down or use their controller (mainly through controller vibrations and glow; again a simple way of directing the user’s attention to their hands). The user is disembodied but this choice is understandable –– there was no reason why the user should have a sense of embodiment in what already felt like a space out of a fantasy or sci-fi film; it doesn’t affect presence in any way because the user still has control. Embodiment wouldn’t have served any purpose.

It’s a six-degrees of freedom experience, enhancing the sense of exploration and movement, and making it less of a passive experience despite the somewhat heavy narration throughout.

This is the first VR experience that I have tried where I felt it’s like a piece of pre-choreographed interactive theater, with the user/experient being an actor, sans rehearsal, and where the other “actors” are stars and elements of the cosmos, and where the sound design itself plays a central part (it’s the silent protagonist). The experience does bring home the idea that space is not silent.

The only downside of the experience, in my opinion, is how lengthy it is. The three chapters are 30 minutes in total, so by the end, the experience can become a little dizzying and slightly overwhelming.