From an inside look at honeybees suffering from colony collapse disorder to a trip around the star-studded Orion Nebula, one woman uses virtual reality (VR) to transform scientific concepts into immersive experiences.
At the Fistful of Stars premiere during the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, 6,000 people gathered in Brooklyn, NY’s Prospect Park Bandshell for what would become the world’s largest communal VR experience. Cardboard headsets in place and apps fully downloaded, viewers were transported to the Orion nebula to experience the birth, life and death of a star.
A live opera performance of the Hubble Cantata serenaded the audience as they traveled like astronauts into space.
Eliza McNitt is the creative force behind Fistful of Stars. A two-time Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) award-winner and New York University Tisch School of the Arts graduate, McNitt is leveraging her passion for film and VR to share unique stories about science and space.
She had the opportunity to share these passions with a larger audience when National Sawdust, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit music venue, approached her about creating an innovative experience that took participants on a floating journey through the cosmos. Fistful of Stars was born.
“I immediately suggested VR because it’s the only medium that can make you feel as if you’ve truly been transported to another world,” McNitt said, explaining that the experience paired images taken directly from the Hubble telescope with photorealistic simulations created from data and research.
“Then suddenly we were in uncharted territory with no rules or boundaries,” she said.
A VR Space Odyssey
The next live performance occurs at the Kennedy Center on May 25, 2017 in Washington D.C. This time, a more intimate crowd of 2,500 people will don cardboard headsets and use an app on their phones to journey the galaxy. Opera singer Nathan Gunn, a 20-piece instrumental ensemble and a 100-person choir from The Washington Chorus will perform the Hubble Contata to complete the Fistful of Stars experience.
Jess Engel, who produced Fistful of Stars for the premiere in the park, explained that the novelty of VR made the project especially challenging.
“VR is a new space that everyone is playing in,” she said. “We weren’t just creating a VR experience that would live on an app, we were orchestrating a live event. We needed to figure out how to sync the experience to the live performance.”
Despite the crushing stress of pulling everything together, Engel said the hard work paid off.
“At one point, I removed my headset and looked around, and everyone was enraptured in this experience,” Engel said. “We were all transported to space together. It was really special.”
Engel credits McNitt’s energy, passion and work ethic as the motivating forces keeping the project moving. Although the two didn’t know each other before the project, Engel said being in the trenches together created a unique bond.
McNitt’s can-do attitude also impressed Intel’s Lisa Watts when McNitt worked with the tech company to share the Fistful of Stars trailer using Oculus headsets in Intel’s booth at the 2017 Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
“She jumped right in, putting headsets on people. She is amazingly personable and was fascinated to see individual people go through her VR experience,” Watts said, adding that while many were blown away by the planetarium trip on steroids, others were less impressed.
“She liked every reaction, no matter what it was,” said Watts. “The freshness and excitement she has for what she’s doing and for the technology is incredible.”
Watts foresees other opportunities for McNitt to use her creative narratives to get audiences interested in science. As the technology continues to advance, artists will have a whole new playing field to develop projects that include VR, 360-degree video, haptics and more.
“The world is becoming truly multidimensional, and we are no longer earth-bound,” Watts said, adding that Intel is looking for ways to provide the tools to help creators like McNitt and others. “These technologies allow us to explore and add to the world in ways we couldn’t before.”
Seduced by Science
McNitt’s journey to filmmaking began with a scheduling mishap that landed her among the best and brightest student scientists at Greenwich High School. In her science research class, she got a little help from her grandfather.
The former chemical engineer at MIT changed the course of McNitt’s future when he warned his granddaughter about the carcinogens that were sprayed on the outside of her apple. He wanted to make sure she’d washed it before taking a bite.
That apple, much like the falling fruit that supposedly spurred Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, led McNitt on an adventure that would eventually earn her a spot at ISEF and jumpstart her filmmaking career.
“I’d never thought about what could be on the skin of my apple,” McNitt explained. “This set me on a task of trying to figure out what pesticides were making their way through the pollination path of honeybees.”
Requiem for a Honeybee is a film Eliza McNitt worked on with her Greenwich High School classmate Charlie Greene. Inspired by her own research project, McNitt presented the idea to Greene when he asked her if she had any ideas for a C-SPAN documentary contest about “the most pressing issue President Obama should know about.” The film won first place.
McNitt tracked various pesticides before honing in on one: imidacloprid. Her discovery that this mysterious pesticide was a primary culprit in honeybee colony collapse disorder predated any of the current research on declining honeybee populations. It also helped her achieve a personal goal: Beat her male classmates at the Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair.
“It was a pure accident, all because of that apple,” McNitt said, explaining that her second-place win in the life sciences category at the state level earned her a spot at ISEF. “Suddenly, I’m in a room with 1,500 other students, competing at the world’s largest science fair. That experience truly changed my life.”
After winning top prizes at ISEF in 2008 and 2009, McNitt used the prize money to purchase her first camera, one of Sony’s first high-definition models.
Her first solo film followed her Intel ISEF cohorts, a charming dynamic of people that included a Hindu, a creationist and a Jew on an all-expense paid trip to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
“This trip was the first time I took a step back and realized how small I was,” McNitt said. “CERN is what began my fascination with the mysteries of the universe. Since then, I’ve been completely obsessed with space.”
Movies and Magic
When McNitt first told her science research classmates that she was going to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, they were somewhat baffled. Many of these students were preparing to start their first years at MIT and Harvard.
“I was going to study film because I wanted to create narratives about science through storytelling. I wanted to use these stories to make science something universal for everyone,” she said. “I told them it would all make sense one day.”
McNitt has certainly brought her vision to life with movies like Artemis Falls, Without Fire and Codenation that push boundaries of science and feature complicated, strong female characters. Despite filming award-winning and critically acclaimed stories, however, it wasn’t until Fistful of Stars that she achieved a long-time career goal.
“I submitted the film to SXSW because I thought it would be the perfect place to have the world premiere,” McNitt said, explaining that nine of her previous entries had been rejected. “I was in a cab when I got the call. I couldn’t believe we got in. I was so overjoyed that I started to cry.”
That’s when McNitt noticed the taxi driver was also crying.
“I told the driver that his cab was magic, and he said he was so happy that I was so happy,” she said. “It really was a magical moment.”
Editor’s Note: At the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Eliza McNitt earned a seven-figure sum for Spheres—a three-part series that lets viewers explore the depths of space in VR. The project was part of Sundance’s New Frontier, which brings to light the work of innovators in the fields of new technologies including virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence. This was the first time a VR production has garnered such a deal, showing huge promise for anyone working in new technologies today.