We Tried It: Going to Mars with Buzz Aldrin in Virtual Reality
Buzz Aldrin is your virtual guide to Mars in a new immersive VR experience from 8i and Time Inc.
“Get your ass to Mars!”
It’s one of the most memorable lines in Total Recall, and you can have an American legend tell you it in person, thanks to Buzz Aldrin’s Cycling Pathways to Mars, which is coming out Friday via Time Inc. to TIME and LIFE VR audiences across multiple virtual-reality platforms.
The 10-minute clip illustrates a plan the 83-year-old Aldrin has been working on since 1985: a sustainable settlement and 150-person colony on Mars. It makes use of a spacecraft trajectory now known as the “Aldrin cycler,” which makes travel to Mars far more possible than previously thought.
The experience itself is, to put it mildly, mind-blowing. I was fortunate enough to try it at SXSW 2017, and the 10 short minutes felt like a revelatory lifetime. This was actually my first VR experience — I’ve seen the viral clips of people falling over as they try Oculus Rift for the first time, and seen the technology in commercials, etc. — so I was primed for something insane, which I definitely got.
The clip begins in a sort of space station-type room, but where the technology really begins to shine is when it switches to the surface of the moon and Mars. (I bumped into one of the booth attendants wandering around the beautifully rendered Mars surface, play-acting like I was in The Martian.) “I don’t want to be remembered for just kicking moon dust,” Aldrin says in the clip, as if that was really an issue. Aldrin appears in front of you for most of the clip, in a very lifelike 3D-rendering, and hearing him explain his plan to you, first-person, is truly something — an American legend talking to you, face-to-face.
The highlight of the clip, however, isn’t the moon or Mars. It comes later, when the film deposits you in the literal center of the universe while the stars and planets spin around and above you. It’s a concept that’s appeared in decades of sci-fi media — this 3D-projected map of the universe — and to be in the center of it gave me goosebumps. Watching one of the “cyclers” — the shuttles Aldrin’s plan intends to use to hop from the moon to Mars — pass over your head on a massive scale is not something you’re likely to forget anytime soon: It’s like living a scene out of Interstellar or Gravity. As a lifelong fan of sci-fi ranging from Ray Bradbury to Philip K. Dick and the entire canon of sci-fi cinema, I was left speechless.
“I got to see Oculus Rift in 2013,” 8i cofounder Linc Gasking explained to me afterward. “And the first thing I wanted to do was go to Mars. Initially it was a storytelling device: The idea was, wouldn’t it be great to have a human guide in this space? And now it’s ended up being not just entertainment but education.” (8i is also responsible for the video up top, which is a separate app that projects Buzz, Pokemon Go-style, into real environments via your smartphone.)
Aldrin got involved in 2016 when 8i was working on a NASA-funded project that was testing emotional reaction to 3D projections sent to isolated astronauts. (Remember the scene in Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey gets all those videos from his family?) Aldrin ended up being the test ambassador to the astronauts; eventually, the idea will be to send 3D messages from Earth to astronauts in orbit.
“Some people don’t see an inspirational idea as fast as others of us do,” the real-life Aldrin tells me after I spend 10 minutes with the virtual one. “Too many other things get in the way: Congress. Big companies. Lobbyists — in some order or the other.”
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The ideal timeline sees Aldrin’s proposed Mars mission launching July 20, 2019 – the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, coincidentally – and sending its first crew in 2021.
Aldrin, 8i and Time Inc. are working to make sure everyone catches up with those inspirational ideas — whether they’re ready or not.