Apollo 11 HD

Developers: Immersive VR Education Ltd.

Year of Production: 2018

Platform: Oculus Rift

In a word: wow. This experience’s attention to detail, historical correctness, and soundtrack simply blew me away. Not only does the experience put you in the shoes of the Apollo astronauts but even lets you take control of the spacecraft during the most vital phases of the mission. Only 12 astronauts got to walk on the moon. Frankly though, I feel like anyone who sees this experience will get a glimpse of what that was like.

The experience starts in a living room where the user watches Kennedy’s famous speech in 1962 at Rice University where he challenged the United States to set foot on the moon by the end of the decade. The speech is projected onto the wall with the old projections we see in movies. It definitely contributes to the nostalgia of the moment and you feel like you are watching the speech as Americans did back in 1962. The developers did something that I didn’t expect: they played the entire speech from the beginning all the way up to the famous “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” line. Not many people (including me) have heard the build up to that line. It is truly emotional and sets the stage to the mission itself.

The experience then cuts to the astronauts boarding the mighty Saturn V rocket on the launch pad. The Saturn V is the largest rocket ever built. We will never see it assembled vertically ever again. The screen pauses right below the rocket and gave me a chance to look up at it. This really let me appreciate its size and was a nice touch from the developers. Right when I thought “oh ok, we are going to cut to a scene where we are strapped into the spacecraft”, the experience continued to walk toward the elevators that would take us to the top of the rocket. Many astronauts say the elevator ride focuses them for the launch. Thus, I appreciated that the developers put this small nuance into the experience.

Then, of course, came the launch. I was shocked as to how much detail was put into the panel of the command module. Every switch was where it was supposed to be. Even the computer display was in the right program and counting down to liftoff. All Apollo astronauts said that the vibrations during launch were so violent that they could not read the instruments in front of them. This was clearly the case in the experience. The shacking was violent and the sound thunderous. The instruments even read out the correct attitude and velocity which really added to the experience.

You obviously can’t feel weightlessness without being in space. When the engines cut out after launch, however, a pen detached from the control panel and floated by me. This small touch made me question whether I was really in space or not. Even my fellow astronauts glanced over at me and gave me thumbs up. I found myself giving them a thumbs up in return!

Now what really stood out to me about the experience was that I was able to take control of the lunar module “Eagle” and set it down on the moon. A short tutorial screen showed the controls. It was quite difficult and it took me a couple of tries to do so. However, I liked this aspect. The lunar module was sluggish and took time to move, just like the actual one. I really had to think ahead of the spacecraft and plan my thruster burns accordingly. Games I’ve played where I land on the moon are simpler and frankly unrealistic in this sense. They make it seem like anyone can do it. The fact that this experience was more challenging really gives users a sense of what it really took to land on the moon and the difficulties associated with it. Remember the comment about the instrument panels displaying accurate information. The user actually needs to use the instrument panel to know the altitude and speed of the lunar module. Else, it’s nearly impossible to gauge the landing using visual cues alone. This was an awesome touch by the developers. The user really gets to do it the way Neil Armstrong did in 1969 with huge realism.

This experience was much too long to share in such a short blog. But the big take away from it is how to tell a story to really immerse users into the experience. For someone like me that knows much of the history of Apollo, it was truly awesome to have everything historically correct. It made me feel like I was there since the spacecraft behaved like the astronauts said it did!

Story-telling was crucial in this experience. The buildup was perfect with JFK’s speech then unto the elevator ride. There was a slow build up and then WHAM, the user is thrust unto setting the Eagle onto the moon’s surface. Even someone who isn’t a space person would feel a little pressure at this point since they would think “all this to get to the moon and it’s my job to land.. better get it right”.

The story of Apollo 11 is in and of itself inspirational. But the fact that the developers let the user be part of the crucial stages in the mission really contribute to the sense of immersion and being there in the moment. The transmissions are the same as they were in the actual mission! They really just let the story tell itself. The big disadvantage though is it that story is long (approx. 30 minutes). While walking on the moon, I started to feel disorientated. So getting through the rest of the story at that point was a little difficult. Individual endurance can play a large factor in this story. If someone gets bored/disoriented early, they might not pay attention the rest of the way. The developers do a great job of changing from first person to third person to keep your attention. But feeling nauseous is something I couldn’t completely get around in the end.

This begs the question: should longer VR experiences include breaks? Sure, these intermission literally break the experience and the immersion. But can a well-timed break give the user a chance to think more about the experience and let it sink in? Can an intermission increase the impact of an experience?