When it comes to the side projects of Seattle’s richest tech titans, billions of pixels are apparently as fun to play with as billions of dollars. While Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin chase travel beyond Earth in reality, Paul Allen and Vulcan are already there, in shared immersive reality.
Allen’s Holodome, a 4-year project billed as a portal to other worlds, both real and imagined, is now a reality at the Microsoft co-founder’s Museum of Pop Culture where it opens to the public on Saturday. It’s up to visitors whether they want to go to deep space or into the huddle at a Seattle Seahawks game or into the wilderness with Justin Timberlake.
Holodome is a spherical room offering a 360-degree video, sound and haptic experience to small groups of six people at the same time. The immersion is a step in an exciting new direction from what most have witnessed in virtual and augmented reality — if only because Holodome doesn’t require the use of a headset. Users are fully aware of their own bodies and the real-world movements and expressions of others in the room. Movies, sporting events, video games, concerts, travel and countless other entertainment experiences could someday undergo a seismic shift on the back of the technology.
The installation at MoPOP is made up of three stages. Visitors first spend time poking around a Jules Verne-type staging area — what’s possible? where can I go? — where various items on shelves or in drawers provide nods to each of the pieces of content viewable in the Holodome. This area was developed by the exhibits team at MoPOP, and includes, among other things, commissioned art and wallpaper and a large sign that was once the entrance to the old Moe’s rock club in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
When a group’s turn to enter the Holodome comes up, they can use a panel to select which of the experiences they want to see, and that group then moves through a bookcase into another staging area. A pre-show video provides an overview of what Holodome is intended to look and feel like, some ground rules for conduct inside, and what to do if you get dizzy or queasy.
“Your senses will be treated to a trip the likes of which you won’t soon forget,” a voiceover, sounding a bit like James Earl Jones, told us.
The second stage leads through another door into the confines of the Holodome sphere where the real entertainment takes place.
Vulcan Productions and its partners have created four roughly 5-minute-long experiences for the Holodome exhibit at MoPOP. Visitors will only be able to view one at a time, and will have to get back in the line in the preview area each time they want to watch another. For the purposes of my media visit, we watched all four without leaving the Holodome.
- Death Planet Rescue: My first understanding of what Holodome was all about came in this sci-fi thriller, where I was aboard a spaceship on a mission into an alien landscape. Hologram representations of other of crew members appeared on the walls of the sphere. I was surrounded by the inner workings and controls of the ship and I got a 360-degree view of everything surrounding the ship — including some menacing, giant, wormlike creatures. The vibration in the floor and the surround sound heightened the visual experience.
- Songs of Infinity: Journey into the Black Hole: This trippy, deep-space experience had less of a video game feel than the first one. It was a beautiful way to immerse yourself in the images happening all around you, as you watch the formation of a new star and get sucked into a black hole. It felt like something you might get from a planetarium visit — but with way better sound.
- Justin Timberlake’s Montana: An Immersive Music Experience: In this experience, the pop star looked like he was dancing in the room — if the room was the wide open wilderness, big sky and mountainous backdrop of Montana. As someone who grew up on MTV and the emergence of the music video, this experience made it seem like I’d never even seen a TV. Here’s the song, and you’ll just have to picture Timberlake dancing with stars shooting overhead in the night sky.
- Seattle Seahawks: Art of the Play: However stoked you are about the 80-inch TV you have in your football-watching manland at home, you’ve never seen the sport like this. Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin is the star of this experience, taking viewers into his preparation off the field, and into the action on the field. CenturyLink Field and Seahawks fans get credit for being the loudest in the league, and in Holodome we got to witness that feeling when Baldwin scored a touchdown. My favorite part was being inside the pre-game huddle as quarterback Russell Wilson fired up his offense. Spinning in the Holodome, I was giddy about picking out my favorite players like they were right in front of me.
The technical specifications on Holodome reads like a fantasy wishlist for anyone hoping to piece together such a viewing experience. A 360-degree, 9.2K resolution custom camera rig was built to capture video, which is 53 million pixels per frame, 30 frames per second and 1.4 billion pixels per second.
Four 4K projectors with custom lenses are installed at the top of the dome and advanced computer vision algorithms stitch and blend a single image onto the walls and floor of the sphere. A custom mix inside the dome allows visitors to hear voices, and higher frequency sounds such as trickling water and bird songs — all without an echo.
Allen challenged his team at Vulcan to change the trajectory of where immersive experiences are going, and to get outside the headgear, according to Kamal Srinivasan, the director of product development at the company. Evolutions over the years in the shape and texture of the screen, the sound, the software and more has culminated in Holodome.
“We want to run the preview and find, ‘How is it in the wild?'” Srinivasan said of the experience that will live at MoPOP until January 2019.”We’re going to a learn a lot from users. We’re going to learn about types of content and user reactions we see at different stages.”
Holodome could eventually be an experience that is targeted toward arcades, stadiums, theme parks and the like as far as potential customers. The location-based nature of the entertainment is not viewed as an in-home option right now. A second unit, not open to the public, is being set up in Los Angeles in June as a “creator’s edition,” at Wevr, a VR studio. Content creators — in a city known for producing a bit of just that — will be encouraged to step inside Holodome to witness the potential for future projects.
Jason Emmens, artistic director at MoPOP, said Vulcan is anticipating a diverse, multi-generational audience will want to experience Holdome at the Seattle museum.
And after that, the question will be, “Where do we go from here?” Emmens said.
At MoPOP, a general admission ticket is required to experience Holodome. Each experience will last between 5-7 minutes and cost $5 each. Timed tickets are available on first-come, first-served basis and are sold on site only. Visitors can get $2 off the purchase of a Holodome experience when they purchase tickets to MARVEL: Universe of Super Heroes. Holodome tickets are valid only for date of purchase and are non-refundable.