The Science Museum's new VR exhibit is astronaut training with Tim Peake

Put your helmet on
Training with Tim Peake in VR

If the idea of experiencing an Interstellar docking sequence and the final act of Gravity up close and wrapped up in a science lesson sounds like fun, you'll like the Science Museum's new Space Descent VR experience.

The whole idea is that Science Museum visitors can see the real Soyuz TMA-19M capsule on the ground floor before heading up to the third floor to get inside it via VR.

Essential reading: The Natural History Museum and VR collide

It's a 12-minute Samsung Gear VR experience set in and around the descent module of the Soyuz spacecraft from the International Space Station. It costs £7 a go with British ESA astronaut and national treasure Tim Peake as your virtual guide. And he should know what he's talking about as it's an accurate CG recreation of how he returned to earth from his Principia mission back in June 2016.

"When we put it on Tim's head, he said 'Oh my god, I'm back inside the Soyuz'," Anthony Geffen, chief exec and creative director of Atlantic Productions, said. "He knew that because there was a bit of tape that was in there when he came down and that bit of tape was still there. He got out of it and he said 'I've just relived the descent'.

"Seventeen years I was involved in the very beginning of virtual reality," Geffen continued. "We were trying to create a virtual chariot ride with a very expensive, very heavy headset. We managed to render the stadium and the horses but then we tried to render the crowd and the Sun Microsystems computer completely clogged up. I realised it was going to take many more years to get photorealism. I think we've arrived at that."


Hurtling down from space in VR you can learn a lot

Descending

The press pics obviously don't want to give everything away (and neither do I) but most of the experience is actually set inside the capsule after an intro to the ISS. There's a few thrills during the simulation of the 400km journey to be had - Peake announcing that the capsule is on fire but not to worry, as visible flames appear, is the moment that springs to mind. (The outer surface of the real Soyuz capsule was charred by 1,500 celsius temperatures as it re-entered the atmosphere).

It's mostly a gentle hurtle to earth, though, with time to view a CG orbital sunrise and get a quick lesson in how much impact on speed each parachute has. The capsule slows from 25,000 km/h to eventually land with a couple of bumps and shakes in a CG rendering of Kazakhstan. As for the aesthetics, the VR film looks superbly detailed and very, very convincing - this is mobile VR but each frame is still 5K, that's 2.5K per eye.


Space Descent is not really interactive, aside from looking around, which is a shame - you could see how the 'film' could benefit from incorporating a few gestures. I guess the risk is that then some users may expect more of a traditional game as we've seen in mixed reactions to Fantastic Beasts for Daydream and The Martian for PlayStation VR. It's supposed to be entertaining, sure, but it's not a game, it's a fun, educational simulation.

Another possible sticking point - most VR headset makers suggest only over 13s use their devices and the Science Museum is following this guidance. Not cool if you're a space obsessed ten year-old but better to be careful in these early days of VR.

Still, thinking about VR as an educational tool, it was pretty cool running over the experience in my head again afterwards to see how much I remembered from my space lessons. The ISS was built by 15 nations. The first parachute was the size of a dining table, the second the size of a tennis court etc, etc. We've recently explored how virtual reality could potentially improve our attention spans and this theory could easily apply here: I was 100% concentrating on the space descent for those 12 minutes.

Hurtling down from space in VR you can learn a lot Hurtling down from space in VR you can learn a lot

A spot of endeavour

Space Descent VR is the Science Museum's first permanent exhibition and it was in development even before the real Soyuz capsule and parachute arrived last December. That exhibit will go on loan to the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford later this year in September but via the Gear VRs, it will still have a presence in London.

"The Soyuz capsule is one of our most important ever acquisitions," said the Science Museum's deputy director Jonathan Newby. "Because it tells the story not only of space exploration but also the story of adventure and individual endeavour. In doing that, we hope it inspires young people and the future generation of scientists and engineers. So we're really pleased that we have found a way of extending that experience through this virtual reality offer."

It looks like Atlantic Productions' studio Alchemy VR might have another London museum hit on its hands - its previous work includes the two projects with David Attenborough and the Natural History Museum: First Life VR and Great Barrier Reef VR.

Alchemy's next two projects will help to bolster PlayStation VR's growing selection of non-game experiences at home: Atomic Ghost Fleet, exploring shipwrecks in the Pacific in 360 degrees, and Cocos: Shark Island which is all about watching sharks feeding on fish, off another Pacific island.

Space Descent VR opens on the third floor of the Science Museum, Exhibition Road on 24 March. Tickets cost £7, it's suitable for ages 13 and up and you can book now.


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