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GUEST POST: Jessica Brillhart from Google reflects on the thinking behind her ambitious new VR series, VOYAGER

 
Consider this garden hose.

Exhibit A: Hose

If I were to say world, the first image that would pop into your head would probably not be this one. The image would probably look a little more like this.

Exhibit B: Earth, taken by Apollo 17

Earth, the planet, our home.

An image of this world from space can be a profoundly affecting thing. From that vantage point, it’s difficult to make out countries or borders. Instead, we see large green-brown land masses. We see the breadth of our oceans. We witness the atmosphere as one unit that ebbs and flows over the entire planet. From this magnitude out, we get a sense of Earth as a living, breathing whole.

For kicks, let's zoom out further still – where notions of land masses, oceans, and atmosphere fade away.

Exhibit C: Earth, taken by Voyager 1

Our world becomes a speck suspended in the vastness of space. And yet, as Carl Sagan once noted, “That’s here, that’s home – that’s us.”

The photographer of the above image is NASA space probe, Voyager 1. It had completed its primary mission and was starting to head towards the edge of our solar system before getting the command from NASA to pause for a final set of photos – Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Venus and then one last look at home.

With its camera system powered down, the probe began the next stage of its mission. Mounted to it was a 12-inch gold plated copper phonographic disc — a message from Earth to intelligent life beyond our solar system. On this Golden Record were images, greetings, sounds, and music that served as a representation of the variety and multifaceted nature of the human experience.

Though Voyager 1 will eventually become inoperative, the Golden Record will remain intact. A message in a bottle, thrown into interstellar space, floating onward in the cosmic ocean for billions of years to come.

So what's with the hose?

Exhibit D:  Hose (again)

On first glance, comparing this framing of a simple hose to an image of Planet Earth from space might seem a bit silly. It’s a hose. What could a hose ever tell us about the grand nature of human existence?

When I started working in virtual reality, I had tried making VR the same way I made films. I saw it as a frame I had to craft and scrutinize and edit. Frames, after all, are the foundation of films both in theory and in practice.

But that didn't really work out so well, and that was because I was dismissing a crucial part of all this: beyond any single frame is a world of other frames to be considered, and VR doesn't just embrace this – that’s the whole point.

It became clear to me that if I ever hoped to make anything remotely meaningful in VR, I needed to welcome this notion of worlds of frames and craft a dialogue between that world and someone who visits it (my audience). Great VR happened when a visitor and a world connected.

This is why the Golden Record is so exciting to me. For one: Space. Secondly, every time I look at or listen to the content on the Record, I connect with Earth in a new way. Unique patterns start to emerge. Earth becomes a world teeming with infinite micro-worlds of its own. Thirdly, the Record has been a constant reminder of how little I really know about my own planet.

The Golden Record’s purpose has always been two-fold: to help illustrate to the aliens out there what it’s like to be on our planet and also to connect Planet Earth with the aliens down here who inhabit it. When experienced, the Golden Record dismantles barriers, compels us to celebrate our differences and challenges the preconceived notions we have about our own existence. It enriches our understanding of who we are and leaves us humbled by the vastness of our collective human experiences.

As the fortieth anniversary of the Voyager Mission approaches, it seems very appropriate to expand on what makes the Golden Record relevant to so many of us. That's why I am collaborating with some friends at Google, NASA, NASA JPL and others on a project that reimagines content from the Golden Record in virtual reality.

In June, we’ll be staging a special preview of the first two VR experiences at Sheffield Doc/Fest as part of their Alternate Realities exhibition. The first is an interactive live-action piece which allows you to explore multiple worlds of experience in Navajo Nation, as day breaks over Monument Valley. The second is a 360 VR film showcasing a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, First Movement by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, woven with a visualization of Voyager 1’s journey into interstellar space. The visualization is based on data and audio that the probe picked up along the way.

There's a lot more to come. We’re working with a slew of great creators – including Ann Druyan, the creative director of the original Golden Record -- on bringing this VR record to fruition.

This project has already been a heck of a journey, and while much is unknown, this is certain:

We are more than 7 billion inhabiting this planet. Our experiences are as vast as the number of stars in the cosmos. Beyond each frame of experience, there’s a world to be discovered. A hose is never really just a hose.

Exhibit E:  Little Hose Planet

That’s here. That's home. That's us.