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.
Click here to catch up on the latest news from SXSW 2017.