THIS YEAR AT Coachella the biggest spectacle wasn’t Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, or even Lady Gaga. It wasn’t Selena Gomez and the Weeknd’s PDA, either. Instead, it was a massive dome where attendees could see giant neon caterpillars, alien landings, and geometric shapes pulsing through the cosmos—no hallucinogens required.
Chrysalis, as the show in the dome is called, is a virtual reality trip very different from the goggle-enabled VR most folks are familiar with. Instead of crushing their flower crowns with a headset, Coachella attendees watched the eight-minute show projected onto the ceiling of a 60-foot high rotunda. All they had to do was lean back and look up.
The experience is the work of Obscura Digital, a San Francisco-based studio that spent three months developing Chrysalis. The result of their efforts is a steel and vinyl dome outfitted with 108 speakers, 15 projectors, and 500 seats that immerses viewers in a classic psychedelic story: the metamorphosis of a caterpillar. “When you sit back inside this giant dome, it’s a chrysalis cocoon that transforms the experience of being at a festival to a realm within realms,” says Emmett Feldman, art director at Obscura.
Although Obscura had done large-scale visual projects before—the company created an immersive 360-degree sphere in Dubai and built a dome for NASA honoring the Space Shuttle Program, for example—the Coachella job was something entirely new, and required two teams working in tandem to complete: a creative team, which worked on the video aspects, and a tech team that developed the dome itself. While the creative folks worked on CGI and went to Joshua Tree to capture long-exposure footage of the desert, the tech group developed the tools to project it—practicing with a 30-foot test dome in the San Francisco office while a sister company, Pacific Domes, built the big version in Ashland, Oregon.
Usually when the Obscura team does VR inside a dome, they use at most two projectors, creating fades for the region in the center where their images meet. But the giant Chrysalis dome required 15 projectors to cover its entire surface, and with that many running simultaneously up to four of them could overlap in some areas. Aligning the video manually would’ve taken too much time, so the Obscura team created an automatic system: After each eight-minute showing, a camera in the center of the dome calibrates the feeds, adjusting the sequences to each projector as needed to create the blends. Using a camera to automatically calibrate means they can adjust based on minute changes to the shape of the dome. That’s especially important in the Southern California desert, where a 30-degree range in temperature from day to night can cause the dome’s vinyl material to contract and shift.
Once all the creative and technical issues were worked out, Obscura shipped the whole thing to Indio, California, where its caterpillar metamorphosis played for more than 60,000 people. Now that the music fest is over, the physical dome will stay with the Coachella team, who plan to bring it to the Panorama Music Festival in New York City this July. No matter where audiences see it, though, the Obscura team hopes Chrysalis introduces them to the psychedelic possibilities of VR.
“We wanted to really give the audience something beyond their expectations of what the festival would be about,” says Obscura’s creative director Joshua Pipic. “They can go back to their tent, let it soak in, and look at the scale of things, from the subatomic level to the expansion of the universe. It’s really mind-expanding.”
A consciousness-altering, transformative after-hours trip? Let’s see Lady Gaga do that.
Correction at 2:59 p.m. on 4/25/2017: Due to a mathematical error, the article originally stated the the dome was 120 feet high; it was actually 60 feet high, with a 120-foot diameter. Additionally, the article included an erroneous estimate of the dome’s attendance and the number of speakers involved; those numbers have been amended after receiving updated information.