The Holodome exhibit is a preview of Vulcan's "shared immersive reality" technology, allowing a group of people to go through a 360-degree experience together, without wearing virtual-reality headsets.
Imagine a special room that enables you to experience the violent clash of two black holes in outer space from the inside out or can put you in the middle of an NFL huddle staring face-to-face with quarterback Russell Wilson as fans rain down cheers that shake the ground beneath you.
It sounds a lot like the holodeck — that infamous and much-coveted piece of technology from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame — except that it’s real.
Starting May 5, for an extra $5, visitors to the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) can experience being in a “Holodome,” a technology being touted as a form of immersive reality that allows groups of up to five people to share the same experience and interact with each other without the use of virtual-reality headsets or glasses of any kind.
The staging area, before you enter the Holodome, is decorated in an eclectic style inspired by Jules Verne, and encourages visitors to start engaging with the fantastical right away. This is a place where parents and children alike are encouraged to look not just with their eyes but also with their hands: Run your hands along turf like at CenturyLink Field and open drawers filled with bizarre trinkets. Then at a secret door in a bookcase, visitors select one of four Holodome experiences, and step through the entrance.
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Each of the four presentations is about four minutes long. Two of those — a private performance by Justin Timberlake set in Montana by a lake, and a Seahawks experience hosted by Doug Baldwin — use real-life footage captured by up to eight cameras filming in sync.
Two others — the colliding black holes and a sci-fi adventure featuring actor Michael Ironside and some creepy aliens — were created with computer animation and the Unreal video-game engine, respectively.
“We’re always looking for ways to provide new experiences for our visitors,” said MoPOP artistic director Jasen Emmons. “[MoPOP founder] Paul Allen’s idea was for something that, whatever you could dream up, it can take you there. You can go to Mount Everest, go to the Gobi Desert.”
Four years ago, the Microsoft co-founder challenged his team at Vulcan, the catch-all organization that runs Allen’s diverse portfolio, to create a new type of content platform.
Virtual reality, or VR, was just starting to come into its own as a consumer good, but Allen was wary of the inherent limitations that come with wearing a cumbersome headset.
“VR is such an isolating experience,” Emmons said. “Having four or five people in the room — that is a big part of the fun of the Holodome.”
What Vulcan came up with is impressive, even if the initial iteration of the technology is still in what Vulcan is calling a “preview phase” that will last until January 2019. Essentially a small domed room that Kamal Srinivasan, Vulcan director of product development, describes as a “compound oblate spheroid,” the Holodome feels somewhat like standing in the middle of a miniature IMAX theater.
“The screen was a big factor,” he said. “How do you make the screen seem seamless, that it feels like a single kind of stitched fabric or vinyl?”
A complete dome was the natural answer to defeating the limitations that IMAX theaters impose. Four projectors mounted at the apex of the dome are responsible for spitting out 53 million pixels per frame at 30 frames per second in 9.6K resolution, filling the entire room, including the ground, with vivid images that convey a startling amount of depth.
No, this isn’t an actual holodeck or really even a hologram of any type, like the shimmering, ghostly projections that often show up at concerts. Instead, custom lenses, special filming techniques and a lot of post-processing work on the back-end creates the illusion of depth and movement, while booming surround sound and haptic feedback help sell the experience.
It’s a bit of sensory overload, but the sense of motion as you take flight in the “Death Planet Rescue” experience is surreal and thrilling. And feeling like you’re actually on the field at CenturyLink (even just for a moment) during the “Seattle Seahawks: The Art of the Play” experience is enough to put a smile on even a casual fan’s face.
“They call it tricking the organism,” said Matt Milios, Vulcan Productions’ director of content. “In film, you show somebody’s face, and then show what they’re looking at. Eventually your mind starts to feel like you’re seeing through their eyes and you start to empathize with that character. We don’t have that same advantage in a 360 (degree) world like this, so it’s like, how do we start to trick the organism again into investing into the experience and lose the world around you.
Eventually, Srinivasan envisions holodome users being able to control their experiences similar to traditional video games or watch entire concerts seemingly from the stage. But for now, these powerful vignettes offer a tantalizing glimpse of what the future might hold.
“The Holodome,” May 5-January 2019; MoPOP, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle. A MoPOP general admission ticket, and $5 for Holodome entrance, are both required; timed tickets are available on first-come, first-served basis and are sold on-site only; those purchasing tickets to “MARVEL: Universe of Super Heroes” exhibit get $2 off the price for the Holodome entrance; mopop.org
This post has been updated with Matt Milios’ correct job title.