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Space Needle VR
GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser stands on a platform designed to provide a 4D virtual reality experience of what the redesigned top house of the Space Needle will look like. (GeekWire Photo)

With the sun shining and blue skies above Seattle this week, there’s no better time to venture to the top of the Space Needle to take in clear views through the remodeled icon’s glass top house. But because work is ongoing at the 56-year-old landmark, GeekWire turned to virtual reality to see what visitors will see when changes to the structure are revealed this summer.

The Space Needle is currently undergoing a makeover as part of the $100 million Century Project, transforming the revolving SkyCity restaurant at 500 feet and the observation deck which sits above it at 520. In a two-story office building just a block away from Seattle Center and the Needle, I stepped six inches up onto a platform to experience the soon-to-be enhanced views hundreds of feet above ground.

Space Needle
The Space Needle on Tuesday, with construction scaffolding and barriers in place during its makeover. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The immersive, 4D experience — in which physical effects in reality are combined with the 3D being seen via the animation — is aimed for now at members of the media and influencers. It was created by 8ninths, an augmented, virtual and mixed-reality studio headquartered in the nearby South Lake Union neighborhood.

A 9-foot diameter portable stage serves as a contained space for the user, and it employs haptic elements that connect the physical world with the virtual world visible in the VR headset. Advanced techniques in VR, known as “redirected walking,” also create the illusion of of being able to walk through large spaces while taking just a few steps in the physical world.

Space Needle VR
The view from the starting point of the Space Needle VR experience. (Space Needle Image)

My VR tour started at the base of the Needle, and just like the real world I left outside, it was a blue-sky day in Seattle. In the ever-growing city, it was particularly interesting to note to that there was not another person in sight. But a couple airplanes did leave contrails as they passed high above.

I entered an elevator for the ride to the top, and enjoyed watching the ground disappear beneath my feet as I picked out both manmade and natural landmarks — the colorful Museum of Pop Culture at the base of the Needle, and Mount Rainier, way off in the distance. Puget Sound, Lake Union and the Seattle skyline are all clearly visible. An Amazon tower takes shape in the Denny Triangle.

At the top of the elevator ride, I exited into what will be the restaurant space. The difference between what the old Needle offered and what the new Needle will look like was immediately clear. The view was unobstructed and it was as if I could walk right out and touch the city.

“We were the best view, now we’re the most thrilling view,” said Karen Olson, chief marketing officer of the Space Needle. “It’s visceral, it’s totally different. Last summer if you came up to the observation deck elevators would open, you’d see a cueing wall, you’d see a pony wall on the inside, pony wall on the outside and a metal cage. Now when you go up this summer, the elevators will open and it’s just … Seattle. Floor to ceiling glass on the interior, floor to ‘forever’ glass on the exterior. Nothing between you and the view, just glass.”

Space Needle VR
A plane flies by as viewed from the Space Needle observation deck in VR. No more cage or wires, just glass 520 feet above ground. (Space Needle Image)

Turning in place on the VR stage, I observed the clean lines and ease with which visitors will be able to take it all in. As Olson said, you’re up there for the view, and they’re busy getting all the other stuff out of the way. The details of a new restaurant concept fitting for a futuristic Needle are still being ironed out, so what is on this level will obviously change. Immediate plans call for a temporary lounge, so visitors can just enjoy a drink, people watch and so forth.

The VR prompts me to move forward toward the outer edge and onto one of the signature elements of the virtual tour and the coming remodel — the revolving, glass floor. I stepped onto a section of the platform and a motor beneath my feet gave the feeling that I was standing on a real moving surface. The image inside the headset showed the floor moving and the view changing outside — it was the perfect synergy between physical and virtual worlds.

Adam Sheppard, CEO and co-founder of 8ninths, told me that the Needle experience was special, and features a combination of techniques that take it beyond traditional 3D VR.

“It’s got 3D objects, it’s got drone photography, it’s got haptics, it’s got mixed reality. It’s a whole blend of techniques,” Sheppard said. “The overall impression is you feel like you’re there. I love this particular experience. It’s certainly one of the best we’ve ever made.”

Space Needle VR
The VR view of the glass floor, looking 500 feet down at the Museum of Pop Culture and Lake Union in the distance. (Space Needle Image)

Standing on the glass floor I could imagine the heightened visitor experience — and the amount of people lying on the floor trying to get the perfect selfie. A red seaplane cruised past beyond the glass at eye level and a flock of birds flew by below my feet. I could see the Needle’s steel legs extending out below — a view I was used to seeing for so many years from the opposite, ground-level direction.

“I found it made me more excited to go up and see the finished thing,” Sheppard said of his company’s creation. “You see how it’s different from what we’ve all known and loved from the original Needle, and why it’s like, ‘OK, this is worth visiting and seeing for myself in person.’ All the glass really opens everything up.”

A grand staircase will connect the restaurant level with the upper observation deck, opening up the new Needle top house even more. I was next prompted to move toward a glass bench on the open-air deck. Again, the haptics were perfect, as I leaned in to find my way and sit down in virtual reality, my butt landed on the glass bench constructed on the platform. I slid back against a glass panel made to mimic those that will be in place on a larger scale — 2 1/2 inches thick, the 11-foot-tall and 7-foot-wide panels of glass will weigh one ton each.

Space Needle VR
Wearing a VR headset, GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser sits on a glass bench, with a glass panel at his back to simulate the heightened experience at the Space Needle as 8ninths CEO Adam Sheppard looks on in reality. (GeekWire Photo)

The angle of the glass and the way the benches — referred to as “Skyrisers” by Olson — pitch the visitor back, creates a feeling that you’re leaning out over Seattle. There’s nothing in the sightlines to give you a sense of visual safety. And glass cleaners will be a busy new workforce at the Needle, wiping away finger and facial smudges.

Sitting there on the bench, looking at the open air above my head in VR, I felt a breeze in reality. And once again, another physical detail — a pipe attached to the platform blowing air on the user — connected the two worlds.

“Seeing is believing, but not really — feeling is believing,” Olson said. “And that’s why we created this.”

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