Can a flotation tank and a VR headset recreate the almost spiritual awakening experienced by some astronauts?
During Nasa’s Apollo 11 mission, astronaut Michael Collins looked back at the Earth and was surprised by how delicate and vulnerable the planet looked from space. “It’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile,” he said of the experience. It changed him, and many other astronauts have reported similar sudden shifts in their attitudes and beliefs – a cognitive change that’s been dubbed the “overview effect”.
The term, coined by space philosopher and author Frank White in his 1987 book of the same name, described how seeing the Earth from space transformed astronauts’ perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it. Common features of the experience are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the planet and the environment.
Now, anyone can experience these emotions for themselves – not in space, but in Brooklyn, New York. White is now an advisor to US start-up SpaceVR, which promises to recreate the overview effect by putting customers inside a flotation tank with a waterproof virtual reality headset, and showing them footage of the Earth as seen from space.
The company has spent the last few years prototyping and testing, and is now rolling out the experience worldwide. It uses floatation tanks containing 550kg of Epsom salts dissolved in 1,000 litres of water, which changes the density of the liquid and enables people to float more easily, approximating the feeling of weightlessness.
Users wear a 4K VR headset which has been specially designed to protect the electronics inside from the corrosive saltwater of the tank. It currently uses pre-existing video footage of the Earth from space, but this summer, it will launch its own satellite – a small cubesat built by Pumpkin Space Systems at a cost of around $1m – to capture its own space video to use in the flotation tank.
The bespoke satellite will have two 4K resolution cameras on each side, according to Ryan Holmes, CEO and founder of SpaceVR. Once launched, on a SpaceX rocket, it will enter orbit at 480km above the Earth’s surface – and will beam near-live footage of Earth to people’s VR headsets.
Getting 4K images from a satellite to a VR headset has its challenges – data can only be sent to Earth when the satellite is above land, as that’s where the receiving stations are, so it’s not possible to have a truly live feed. But if there are wildfires or other events going on, imagery of that incident will be part of the experience.
With a growing list of planetary environmental issues and the window for averting action closing rapidly, a mass cognitive shift is needed, Holmes argues. A million astronaut speeches will never put you in orbit above the Earth, suspended in zero gravity,” he says. “That perspective is needed now, more than ever.”