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Image credit: Eliza McNitt

'Fistful of Stars' lets you experience a stellar birth in VR

It uses Hubble images to transport you to the Orion Nebula.
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Eliza McNitt

There may be no better way to show off the possibilities of virtual reality than by exploring the cosmos. We've already seen some early space experiences, like Adr1ft, but you can expect artists to keep experimenting as the VR ecosystem matures. Fistful of Stars, which debuts this week at SXSW, is an ambitious attempt at pushing VR space experiences forward. It launches you into the heart of the Orion Nebula, where you see a star being born up close. It's the sort of thing space nerds have always dreamed of, but it's also intriguing enough for anyone to enjoy (and hopefully learn a thing or two).

Fistful of Stars started out as part of The Hubble Cantata, a live performance that took place in Brooklyn's Prospect Park last summer. Six thousand people in the audience wore Google Cardboard headsets and stepped through the Orion Nebula as a way to show how VR, something that's typically seen as isolating, could also be a social group experience. While they were on their virtual field trip, they were serenaded by a 20-piece orchestra and 100-person choir.

The current version of Fistful of Stars has been improved since its initial run, said director Eliza McNitt, and it's backed by a 3D audio recording of The Hubble Cantata. "I chose the Orion Nebula because it's the birthplace of stars," she said. "I wanted to be able to take people on a journey into space." While this is her first VR film, McNitt is renowned for her work in films and documentaries, including Artemis Falls, a TED-commissioned short about a young astronaut traveling into space. She's releasing Fistful of Stars together with Vice and Samsung in June for the Gear VR.

It's a fairly short VR experience, but Fistful of Stars still makes a big impact. You start off orbiting Earth and end up traveling to the Orion Nebula through the Hubble telescope. The experience is based on Hubble imagery, and it's rendered with a loving realism. It feels more like you're drifting through space than staring at a computer rendering. I was lucky enough to sit through Fistful of Stars in a state-of-the-art screening room covered in speakers, which made it feel like I was reliving a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. SXSW attendees will get a similar experience in private screening rooms. You can still expect it to sound impressive when you're experiencing it through headphones though.

Once I got to the point where I was witnessing the creation of a star in the Orion Nebula, rendered as a fiery marvel, it was hard not to feel a bit emotional. Fistful of Stars is an ideal VR showcase not only because it's a technical marvel but also because it makes you reflect on your own place in the cosmos.

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