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Near the beginning of the new action film “The Mummy," Tom Cruise and co-star Annabelle Wallis are sent tumbling around inside an air freighter as it drops out of the sky amid a crash. The actors appear to be weightless because they were weightless in real life: the scene was shot inside a jet as it made a series of steep dips, each of which produced a period of “zero gravity” lasting about 20 seconds.
Odds are you’ll never experience a plane crash or be aboard a jet on a parabolic flight plan. But audiences who take in The Mummy Experience, a 360-degree virtual reality documentary that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the harrowing sequence, can get a sense of what weightlessness feels like.
The 20-minute VR experience — now in a limited run at New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza — doesn’t actually make anyone weightless. But with help from a new motorized seat — what its maker calls the world’s first full-motion VR chair — audiences can experience brief periods of simulated weightlessness that some viewers call convincing.
Dubbed “Voyager,” the egg-shaped chair was created by Los Angeles-based startup Positron. It features an integrated Oculus Rift VR headset, 3-D audio, haptic feedback that vibrates with the action, mood lighting — and a computer-controlled base that tilts and spins the chair in concert with what’s happening on screen.
For The Mummy Experience, the chair’s subtle tilts and swivels coupled with the VR visuals trick the viewer’s brain to simulate the weightlessness experienced by the actors.
“It’s this really fine-tuned magic trick that suspends the audience's disbelief,” says Christopher Olimpio, creative director of 5th Wall Agency, the Montreal-based firm that shot The Mummy Experience. “They believe they are floating, and when Tom Cruise comes back down to the ground you have to bring the camera down as well to feel as though you’ve come back to gravity.”
Just how close the VR simulation is to real-life weightless depends on whom you ask.
After seeing The Mummy Experience at South by Southwest this spring, PC World's Leah Yamshon called it “realistic” and "immersive." But Mashable’s Raymond Wong wasn’t impressed. “I never felt like I was in a plummeting plane, nor did I feel weightless,” he wrote after the experience. “Not even the slightest.”
No matter what, Positron CEO Jeffrey Travis has high hopes for the future of cinematic VR. The company, which is now developing software intended to help filmmakers design motion and sensory tracks to enhance their own VR movies, is betting that more motion pictures will be shot in 360 VR and that theaters showing the films will want to swap out their conventional chairs for the Voyager.
“There’s this new dawn of VR entertainment,” Travis says. “We’re excited to continue to develop this as a platform that creators and audiences love. That’s kind of what drives us, just seeing that look of joy on people’s faces as they get off. That’s what gets me excited and makes us eager to keep making it better.”
Also leading the charge, IMAX opened its first VR theater in Los Angeles earlier this year and has more locations planned for New York, California, China, and the United Kingdom.
Both "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Experience" are Universal Pictures productions. Universal Pictures and NBC News are owned by Comcast Corporation.