Following the success of her VR debut, Fistful of Stars, creative powerhouse Eliza McNitt is preparing audiences for a new trip to the cosmos in Pale Blue Dot.
Eliza McNitt’s first experience with virtual reality (VR) consisted of wearing the newly minted Oculus Rift DK1 headset for a stomach-churning rollercoaster ride. Suspended high above the Earth, looking out over the metal tracks, McNitt almost fell over. She couldn’t feel her feet.
“I was so fascinated by the idea of being able to transport myself into a totally different world,” she said. “I thought that had a lot of potential and opportunity.”
In 2016, McNitt debuted her own VR experience at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, NY. Fistful of Stars brought together 6,000 cardboard headset-wearing viewers with smartphones to experience the birth, life and death of a star in the Orion nebula.
The experience also made its way to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and this year’s South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
Something of a planetarium trip on steroids, Fistful of Stars and its success inspired McNitt to create an even bigger immersive experience. Her latest project, Pale Blue Dot, transports viewers back to the stars, giving them a whole new perspective about their place in the universe.
“Pale Blue Dot is a journey of home: Viewers begin in our solar system and go deeper and deeper in interstellar space to the edges of the cosmic horizon, but ultimately, they look back at our pale blue dot and realize how small we are in the grand scheme of things,” McNitt said.
“It also shows us how important it is to take care of this place and each other because this is the only home we have.”
This virtual journey lets participants explore places that have only been seen in two dimensions. It’s the famous NASA Pale Blue Dot photo brought to life with the added benefit of collective awe.
“I think the future of narrative storytelling in VR is where you have people sharing experiences together,” McNitt said. “Pale Blue Dot gives viewers that opportunity to be lost together floating through the cosmos, exploring these places they’ve never been before and feeling like stardust.”
The Road to VR
McNitt is a two-time Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) award-winner and New York University Tisch School of the Arts graduate. She says her true passion lies at the intersection of science and storytelling. She worked mostly in film before VR technologies pulled her in a new direction.
“The stories that we tell in VR are completely different than what you would tell through traditional film,” McNitt added. “And that’s what’s so special about VR: It takes you to a place and allows you to see scale and be in a world that you would never otherwise explore. I think VR is really about a feeling.”
“Creating virtual reality is a very different approach because you are no longer using the traditional language of film. You are not just building a scene — you are creating a world,” McNitt said.
Her team is composed of a sound designer, a composer and an effects supervisor. The team taps into their individual superpowers to collaborate on various parts of each episode.
“We like to think about the world that we are crafting and how we’ll feel in that space,” she said. “Then we work together to craft the experience that you’re going to have in that world.”
She adds that her goal is to empower viewers to explore the virtual world on their own — with a little navigational help from the professionals.
“Sound design is a really critical piece of the experience because it shows you different parts of the world that you wouldn’t otherwise discover,” McNitt explained.
“For example, if you have something visual over here but then suddenly the sound of something magical comes in over there, it draws your attention away, and you’re captivated by this new part of the story.”
Participants in the Pale Blue Dot project also get to play a role in helping to create the experience. McNitt says the episodes have an interactive element that enables viewers to develop their own musical score.
“Even though there’s no sound in space, each planet has a very unique plasma wave that emits its own song. We wanted to bring that to life,” she said. “Through Pale Blue Dot, we wanted to craft an experience that gives you the opportunity to take the song of each planet and craft a chorus of the cosmos.”
Building the Experience
Pale Blue Dot is currently in development, with a tentative debut planned for early 2018.
As McNitt and her team work to pull all the creative elements together for a mind-boggling trip through the solar system, she’s partnered with Intel to help bring the final product to fruition.
This partnership first began at CES where McNitt brought Fistful of Stars to the tech company’s booth. Along with Intel’s VR marketing strategist Lisa Watts, the duo put Oculus headsets on participants and discussed future endeavors. It was a perfect fit.
“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.”
For McNitt, the biggest advantage to this partnership is being able to have the right tools at her fingertips.
“Intel has empowered independent creators like myself to be able to build experiences like Pale Blue Dot with just a laptop and a PC,” McNitt said, adding that greater access to VR headsets will really take these projects to new heights.
“There was a time when having a color television was rare, and that is what it’s going to be like with VR headsets,” she said. “VR is going to be another way to access storytelling. It will be another portal to discover and explore new worlds.”
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.