In the ONX studio in New York, pieces of the universe, seen through the eyes of the James Webb Telescope, are on display. It’s a new exhibit that opened last week from Mozilla Hubs, artist Ashley Zelinskie, and NASA called “Unfolding the Universe: A NASA Webb VR Experience.” It was created to commemorate the launch of the space telescope last December.
Scattered throughout the exhibition space are rooms with projected films, desktop computers allowing users to try out the experience online, silk prints, fake fogs and laser lights (mimicking the birth stars) and conceptual sculptures inspired by interstellar travel.
At the center of the exhibit’s main hall is a place reserved for the virtual reality aspects of the experience – a digital gallery inspired by images of galaxies and other celestial bodies from the Webb Telescope.
Last Wednesday evening, former astronaut Mike Massimino was decked out in a VR headset, headphones and joysticks, and strolled through an area whose virtual and physical boundaries were drawn in the gallery with an outline. of white adhesive tape. (Viewers at home can also participate in this portion of the exhibit from browsers on their phones, laptops, or desktops here.)
“I am an astronaut but I am not a young person who does a lot of virtual reality games. I don’t know if I controlled him as well as he could be,” Massimino said. PopSci. Massimino, who previously participated in spacewalk missions to repair and update the various elements of the Hubble Telescope in 2002 and 2009, has a particular appreciation for the engineering required to collect the information needed to make discoveries. scientists in space. “I worked on Hubble. I can appreciate the images. What [Zelinskie] has been able to do is to apply an artistic interpretation of this wonder and discovery,” he says.
The virtual experience works much like an online game. Viewers can navigate a series of corridors in space and visit animated artwork or interactive avatars of scientists Zelinskie interviewed in the process.
“She kept a lot of details. What she’s done here is true to the science behind it and how the telescope works,” adds Massimino. “What I generally like about all of this is that it takes a very technical scientific discovery and it shows the beauty of the images and the beauty of the science behind it, but in a very artistic way so that you can engage him on another level. level.”
The Webb in VR
Zelinskie’s collaboration with NASA and James Webb’s team began about seven years ago. Since COVID, they had been thinking of creative ways to engage audiences and came up with the idea of creating a VR experience. They called on London-based virtual architects Metaxu Studios and Mozilla Hubs to develop the concept they had in mind.
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“We were able to host a James Webb Telescope launch viewing party over Christmas with a group of scientists and the public and we watched NASA Live TV in our Hubs space. We each had VR scientists as avatars, and we released them on YouTube,” said Zelinskie, a concept and mixed media artist. PopSci.
When the Webb images were released by NASA in July, it wanted to incorporate some of the updated visuals into an exhibit.
She added an aurora window based on spectroscopy graphs and data from Webb’s first exoplanet images. There is also a recurring pattern of hexagons that appears in several installations, both in person and online. “The reason they’re hexagons is because they had to unfold in the space capsule. That’s why the show is called ‘Unfolding the Universe’, because the telescope had to unfold,” explains Zelinskie. “The cool thing about the hexagonal shape of the mirrors is that it makes this six-pointed star. You will know it is a Webb image because the stars in this image will have the same shape. It’s a bit like an artist signing his work.
Zelinskie also conducted interviews with several scientists and engineers, asking them about their professional backgrounds and experiences working with Webb.
“I wanted to house different portraits of scientists; we did all the sound mapping so that when you get close to them you can hear the sound of the interview, but when you walk away you don’t hear it,” says Zelinskie. There’s a soundscape running through the virtual gallery that changes depending on where you are in the space. “That’s what [Mozilla] Hubs is really good at tracking sound. »
Building virtual space
John Shaughnessy, Senior Director of Ecosystem and Engineering at Mozilla Hubs, attests that enabling this kind of spatial audio in a device-independent browser environment is certainly hard work.
There are many features to consider, such as distance-based sound reduction, so conversations close to users are loud and those farther away are quieter. There are also considerations for how sound travels in the real world. Sounds different in a room with curtains on the walls than in a room that has solid metal surfaces. “In fact, we’ve had blind users in Mozilla Hubs create add-ons for themselves, customizing the code so they can ping audio into the world and listen to how sound bounces off virtual surfaces to navigate in 3D space without the use of sight,” says Shaughnessy. Additionally, they have to account for the different qualities of microphones from different users and noise from things like keystroke sounds.
But it’s part of a larger effort to build the technological backbone that will one day power all types of virtual interactions and immersive metaverses. And these are issues that all metaverse and VR platforms face.
“I think groups of people will want to meet in virtual spaces, and we’re going to take that for granted. What we’re trying to do is build the bare bones, the basic necessities for this to happen in an open and decentralized way,” Shaughnessy says. “For that, we need two things. We need people to have shared spatial awareness. The second is a shared sense of presence.
To that end, Shaughnessy says they borrowed 3D graphics tricks used in rendering games to give the illusion of realism. For example, they use anchored lighting to calculate the shadows and reflections of stationary objects in the scene in advance, so the calculations don’t need to be done in real time. They also use “level of detail” to keep objects close to the user in high definition while conserving overall memory.
In this particular project, Shaughnessy and Mozilla Hubs built the technology that renders the 3D scene of the meeting space and virtual gallery that Zelinskie and James Webb’s team envisioned. “We’ve given them a tool where they can customize the look, what avatars are in there, and how they can present that experience. We don’t control who comes and goes. We don’t monitor what you do in that space. says Shaughnessy.
The sound of the universe cannot travel through the real vacuum that is outer space. “Inside your spacesuit, when you walk in space, it’s really quiet. You can hit with a hammer and they will hear it inside the spacecraft because sound can travel inside the structure, but you don’t hear anything,” Massimino notes. “You can hear yourself breathing inside. You can hear people talking to you in your headset. But what you always hear in the background is the whirring of a fan, telling you that your spacesuit is working, that air is circulating, that you have electricity.
While the soundscape playing inside his VR headset uses a bit of artistic license, he can just pick up the faint but familiar hum of equipment in the background as he walks through the virtual space. “It’s a comforting sound.”
Unveiling the Universe: First Light will be on display at the ONX studio in Manhattan, New York until October 23, 2022. Join the VR space from a browser here.
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