The ISS Experience: Not visiting any time soon? Through a VR glass darkly may be next best thing

Space doc brings sights and sounds of life in orbit straight to your face

There are plenty of virtual reality "experiences" involving space to keep fans happy. The Register had a go at the latest of the breed, which aims to bump the quality up a notch.

Dubbed The ISS Experience, the documentary is currently being filmed aboard the orbiting outpost, but the first few scenes were shown off last week via Oculus's (relatively) inexpensive Go headset.

The Reg spoke to Félix Lajeunesse, co-founder of the outfit responsible, the imaginatively titled "Felix & Paul Studios", to find out how the thing worked.

Firstly, the documentary is entering a crowded marketplace. There's no shortage of space-based VR experiences to enjoy, from the purely CGI (such as the slightly-shonky-looking Apollo 11 mission) and the BBC's crack at an ISS spacewalk-gone-wrong, Home – A VR Spacewalk, to NASA's Mission:ISS, replete with helpful videos as the user glides around the lab.

The ISS Experience does things slightly differently, taking a more cinematic and less interactive approach.

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The camera, which was sent to the ISS aboard the CRS-16 mission in December 2018, following nearly two years of discussions with the ISS team, consists of an array of nine ZCAM lenses, arranged to capture 360° moving images.

With each ZCAM capable of recording at 4K, the video quality theoretically exceeds the capabilities of current headsets and while Lajeunesse would not be drawn on the exact figure, he did say: "We're capturing at a much, much higher resolution than what the headsets can allow us to monitor."

So more than 4K?

"Oh, it's more than that."

Even on the relatively cheap Oculus Go, the footage thus far is impressive, with a level of detail that will delight those unlikely to pay the station a visit in person any time soon.

Obviously, filming on the ISS has its own unique challenges (just ask the IMAX crowd), and Lajeunesse's team had to shrink the camera to fit the confines of the station and keep things as independent as possible in terms of power as well as making sure astronauts can work the thing.

The other issue, according to Lajeunesse, is the "3D stereoscopic 360° recording", which required calibration. "Because we're filming in a very tight environment, we need to acquire the 360° data in a very specific way."

Prior to recording, the camera performs a couple of 45-second runs "to perform what we call slitscan calibration prior to each recording. And that allows us to get very precise 3D 360° data, all points of light film from different angles as the camera rotates."

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It is undoubtedly impressive stuff and makes for an immersive documentary. The viewer follows various 'nauts as they chatter about life on board the station, perform experiments or just exercise.

However, the camera is, by its nature, fixed. There's no leaning forward to take a closer look at a screen or a sideways shuffle to peer behind a panel. The filming locations have been locked, and that's it.

Looking around from a static position while the video plays out is pretty much your lot.

Lajeunesse explained the problem: "In order to do that, we would have to bring a light field rig or a volumetric capture rig, which are far bigger" and, of course, the capture process is a good deal more challenging. Grabbing the time of astronauts and payload mass to get to this point has doubtless been tough enough.

As for getting all the data down to the ground, the team can pull relatively low-quality versions down via the ISS's data streams to select the sections that will make the cut. The high-quality versions can then be downloaded from the ISS when bandwidth permits – or shoved on a SD card and carried down on a Dragon or Soyuz.

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The team then uses some proprietary tools to stitch everything together.

The current plan is to release the series as six episodes, each lasting between 20 and 30 minutes, culminating with a spacewalk filmed in 2020. The release date will likely be a year or so from now, and be coupled with a travelling exhibition likely to kick off at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

Lajeunesse was cagey as to how the spacewalk would be filmed – the company is still in discussions with NASA on what modifications the hardware would need in order to survive the huge temperature swings that occur on orbit as well as the environment of space.

There is also the question of where to mount the thing – duct tape to an astronaut's helmet or clipped to one of the station's robot arms?

Whatever the decision, the experience will prove useful in the future. As if drilled by a NASA public affairs officer, Lajeunesse said that today's work was "really sort of a stepping stone to being able to go to the Moon and eventually to Mars".

Strap a camera to a rover, and humans might never need to go at all. ®

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