MARS Landing: How Virtual Reality History Was Made

National Geographic's MARS pushed along an innovation in the virtual reality attraction space.

A footprint will stamp the dusty red surface of the fourth rock from the sun within the next 10-20 years, experts say. Those are conservative estimates. The private space sector is teeming with investors hungry to seize Mars, the final, final frontier, as soon as technologically and financially possible.

Space was the final frontier. Humans digging their heels into martian soil (called regolith) would make for sci-fi fantasy turned reality, cementing mankind as an interplanetary species, and opening up a entire universe of new final frontiers to set our sights on.

The sheer amount of companies and government agencies racing to plant the first flag would be reassuring if the logistics of a successful Mars landing weren’t so daunting. Consider the estimated 250 odd days of travel to the red planet, the uncertainties of Mars’ turbulent atmosphere, and the variety of troubling factors that make habitation seem more speculative than obtainable.

The Mars Race, at the very least, has sparked a discussion on space travel, climate change, and human exploration. At best, competition is fueling innovation at a furious rate, with a potential payoff unforeseen by even the biggest of dreamers. That wonderment is at the center of National Geographic’s event series MARS, which utilizes two narratives–the docu-style here and now reality and future-set, but highly informed fiction–to tell the story of the first astronauts to settle on the red planet.

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Back on earth, National Geographic sought to promote MARS in a way that matched the excitement and ingenuity of the series, which was inspired by the book How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen L. Petranek. Their idea was a virtual reality simulator that could take riders on the same journey as the characters in their fictional narrative. 

Like NASA and the private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX that are racing to Mars, National Geographic had an end goal and a timeline. What they ended up igniting was an innovation in the virtual reality world that could be the model for a new wave of VR “rides.”

How Do You Land On A VR Mars?

From major events like SXSW to San Diego Comic Con, VR was a hot marketing tool for television networks in 2016. At its simplest, National Geographic wanted to promote their new series by offering an immersive exhibit (to use marketing terms they called it an activation) in a highly-trafficked area in Manhattan. This project had to elevate hokey arcade simulators with moving seats and three-panel screens or handing out Google Cardboard and asking people to download an app on their phone.

A MARS activation following the red carpet (Nat Geo has a yellow carpet, actually) premiere was scheduled for the last weekend of October. They had roughly two months to go from VR concept to fully-engaged Mars mission.

The production company in charge of the activation called up TAIT, a live-entertainment equipment company responsible for staging and automation for some of the biggest events and brands in the world. TAIT had created a rig similar to what would be needed to make a virtual Mars landing a reality, but pairing it with VR headsets and animations had never been done in the commercial space before. What they essentially had to do was develop a full-fledged virtual reality “ride,” the first of its kind.

“This whole time, there’s been a lot of existential conversations about what are you going to feel,” says Ben Gasper, TAIT’s Project Manager for the MARS simulator.

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“Nobody’s ever been to Mars, and certainly not us. You have to ask yourself those questions. What do you feel when you fly through space or go through the martian atmosphere? What are you going to feel when you’re flying over a canyon?”

TAIT had the rig and cable robot automation system to support a two-seat ride. Next they needed to find the right VR company to build out the immersive animations. After reaching out to a number of companies, they settled on MajorMega, a small but nimble startup that was just scratching the surface of what it wanted to do in the VR space.

“We didn’t have a ton of background in VR,” says Mike Bridgman, co-founder of MajorMega. “It was kind of a recent pivot for us. When we sat down doing all the fun stuff, our visions our goals for the company, at our 20-year mark we put down that we want to somehow be contributing to space colonization. The reason we were so hungry for this project is because it hits every mark for us: virtual reality, space, and the scientific stuff.”

A U-HAUL, A Parking Lot, And An Oculus Rift

Once they got wind of the project, Bridgman and Sean Hennessey, MajorMega’s other co-founder, created a rough, 2D animation of a Mars landing.

Their next move was either a stroke of genius or a recipe for motion sickness: They grabbed a bunch of VR headsets, rented and jumped in the back of a U-Haul, and did donuts in an empty Home Depot parking lot.

“People were walking by like what the heck is [Sean] doing in there?” Bridgman says.

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The HTC Vive proved to difficult to crack under time constraints, leading to an Oculus Rift victory.

“We just learned so much and had a reason to kind of explore and play with all this gear,” Bridgman says. “And one of the great things about Oculus is if you take away their positional tracking, they still let you use the gyroscope, and that was our saving grace in that we could still utilize a consumer-ready device without having to hack it or anything like that.”

Adds Hennessey: “Not having this end-goal of making this project, we would’ve never figured it out. We probably could’ve gotten the Vive working, but we only had a very, very short amount of time to pull the trigger and keep moving on the project.”

The TAIT x MajorMega Collaboration Begins

TAIT agreed to bring MajorMega on board, but that didn’t mean they’d have to ditch the U-Haul. They made another test run by driving around TAIT’s parking lot to see how the headsets did with vibrations, g-forces, and movement.

“Once we actually got the project, we did some more extreme testing where we got in the back of the car and did figure eights,” Bridgman says.

After MajorMega created its initial 2D visual animation of how the ride was going to look, it was sent to TAIT to create a profile, which is basically the instructions that make the ride move.

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“Finesse and art comes into it,” Gasper says. “We have to understand motion and what physics do to the body and you have to understand gravity and how you play with those. A lot of times what the ride vehicle does may not make sense to look at it, but when you understand that you’re trying to create a feeling in the body that’s relative to the animation is doing, it makes a lot more sense when you’re in the virtual world.”

The challenge for MajorMega was simulating three different functions of a ship on Mars in 90s seconds: atmospheric entry, a plane-style canyon ride, then a rocket-style landing. With no input from National Geographic, who had interviewed leading space professionals and astronauts for the series, MajorMega and TAIT relied on research, artistic license, and existential talks. They have no secrets to trade with Elon Musk and SpaceX, but they saw huge value in motion VR.  

“This project confirmed what we had long been thinking in that when you give—they call it “six degrees of freedom” which is pitch, yaw, roll and moving through outerspace—when you add that in the virtual world, it takes it to a whole new level,” says Bridgman.  

The First Men to Land on Mars

The chief concern about space travel to Mars is sticking the landing. By a few inches, TAIT was able fit a self-sustaining structure into a domed bubble in a lot on the corner of Canal and Varick Street in Lower Manhattan. Free of unruly martian weather elements, their Mars mission was still constrained by speed and space.

“We’re surprisingly limited,” Gasper says. “It’s a small rig. It’s a 25 x 25 x 25 triangle. We can only tilt so much and go so fast. One of the beauties of having both teams on site is if we tilt 20 degrees in any angle, these guys can tilt the VR say 40 degrees in the same amount of time so it looks like you’re tilting far more than you actually are.”

Stepping into the triangular space hardly feels like entering the cockpit of a spaceship. Once you’re strapped in, and your headset is adjusted, you’re fully immersed in a ship entering the martian atmosphere. It’s not until the two-seat ride is lifted off the ground by cables that you begin to feel the weightlessness of space hit your body.

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“When you put those goggles on, you actually don’t really know what’s happening,” Bridgman says. “In the VR world, you’re only feeling the forces. There’s nothing else telling you what’s happening. It’s a really neat thing to play with.”  

Most of the jerking motion and twists of the cables take place with the ride low to the ground. The big moment that elicits a reaction from riders is when the cable pulls the seats up to the top of the structure a good 15 feet. Within the headset, that’s actually visualizing a landing.  

“There’s one moment where everyone gets pulled back and it’s been fun seeing a huge variety of reactions to that,” Bridgman says.

To pass the time over four long days of the activation, Bridgman and Hennessey kept a tally of curse words and reactions used by riders when the big landing sequence initiated.

The project, though a grind to complete in just six weeks for the two companies whom had never worked together before, produced a first-of-its-kinds simulator with few hiccups. There was one day where the signals between the TAIT navigator and the game engine were failing for one out of every 10 rides, but they able to remedy the problem by the end of the day, and it was smooth sailing ever since.

VR Rides of The Future

The thrill of the Mars VR experience is short-lived (mostly because it’s only about 90 seconds). It’s a sample-sized taste of a future we can only hope to realize. Yet, the thrill is not from that big drop in the landing, or riding through the canyons of the red planet, but understanding what this technology could mean for the future of VR.

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“From TAIT’s perspective, we’ve now used this as a product. You can call us up, we want your ride, and want to do a race car simulator, underwater, flight simulator,” says Gasper.

“The next level to this is putting the controls on board the vehicle. Giving the people on board the ability to maneuver their ships and give the control to the person that way we can bring in companies like MajorMega and allow them to control it.”

VR experiences like The Void and Australia’s Zero Latency are popular names in the booming business of virtual reality attractions. Those businesses keep you grounded in immersive first-person shooters. The closest thing we’ve seen in the ride space is Six Flags adding VR headsets to an existing roller coaster.

Both TAIT and MajorMega agree that future applications of their collaboration could create endless possibilities for entertainment, corporate shows, theme parks.

“From a theme park standpoint, when you put in a roller coaster, that roller coaster is going to be the same from day one as it is 10 years from now,” Gasper says. “If you put one of these in, you can change that experience every month.”

After completing the MARS project, MajorMega is already exploring their future in the VR attraction space. To them, it’s the next frontier.

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“This has confirmed our thoughts that the next step of virtual reality is to get out of your living room and actually have external forces on you,” Bridgman says. “That’s what really takes virtual reality to the next level of reality.”