Don’t reach for the stars: Observatory’s VR experience can make you look silly


With Marlborough’s Omaka Observatory set to open next month, reporter Andy Brew takes their new virtual reality experience for a test drive.

Having never used a virtual reality headset before, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was invited to use the soon-to-be-opened observatory’s newest gadgets.

On a cold, overcast morning when even the sun wasn’t visible, the chance to explore the universe high above the clouds from the comfort of the warm indoors was an opportunity too good to miss.

The observatory’s chairperson, and keen astronomer, Lee Harper introduced me to the Lenovo Explorer VR system, with the visuals supplied by Victory VR, and the European Space Agency.

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After a brief explanation of the ins and outs of what was to come, it was time to strap myself in and go for a ride.

I was immediately blown away by the …er, realism of it all. So much so, that when I was ordered to hit the booster thrust for lift-off, I instinctively reached out to my left to grab the handle, before I realised it was make-believe, and wasn’t there.

What happened over the next 20 minutes or so imbued a new-found fascination with the stars, the universe, and what else was out there.

Viewing the heavens from Earth, it is almost impossible to quantify the scale and enormity of our sibling planets, and Earth’s place in the universe.

Andy Brew takes a tour of space using one of Omaka Observatory's new virtual reality headsets.

Lee Harper/Supplied

Andy Brew takes a tour of space using one of Omaka Observatory’s new virtual reality headsets.

Omaka Observatory’s VR system allows the user to explore, up close, some of the most far-flung corners of our universe as if sat in the cockpit of a bona fide space shuttle. Vibrating chairs will add to the all-round sensory simulation.

Flying past a comet hurtling through space at thousands of kilometers an hour was breathtaking, as was having an astronaut’s eye-view of the International Space Station 400 kilometers above earth.

Tours of the Milky Way, the Alpha Centauri, Sombrero Galaxy, and a Black Hole all left me feeling, figuratively, out of this world.

My favorite part was sat among our very own solar system where, for the first time in my life, I was able to comprehend the sheer astronomical massivness of our brother and sister planets.

The VR is so, er, realistic, you might forget where you are and try to floor the thrusters.

Lee Harper/Supplied

The VR is so, er, realistic, you might forget where you are and try to floor the thrusters.

I felt a real sense of peace up in the stars, and looking at our little speck of dirt among the huge boulder-like planets of Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus does get the mind wondering about the meaning of life, and what part we play in the grand scheme of things?

And, if the grand scheme of things for The Omaka Observatory Charity Trust is to get more children and adults interested in the stars and the universe, then their new headsets seem a sure fire way to do just that.

Marlburians will be able to experience the thrill of zooming through outer space themselves from Saturday, July 2, when the observatory opens its doors to the public just in time for the school holidays. They had planned to open on June 24 but weather and Covid had delayed the opening.

For more info, go to http://omakaobservatory.co.nz/

In a virtual reality, a comet hurtles past the space shuttle.

Lee Harper/Supplied

In a virtual reality, a comet hurtles past the space shuttle.

Matariki in Marlborough

The Omaka Observatory is joining forces with Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne o Wairau, the Marlborough Youth Trust, and My Voice for a special early morning Matariki celebration and breakfast at Rarangi Rock on Thursday, June 23 at 6am.

The free event is open to all, with telescopes giving guests a close-up look at Matariki, and speakers from Rangitāne will explain the history, meaning and importance of the cluster of stars as they rise above the horizon just before dawn.

“It’s going to be great, working with different groups such as the youth trust to get kids engaged, and Ngāti Kuia who can share their wisdom, and us with the technology to observe it close up…” Harper said.

With the help of telescopes, early risers will get a close look at the nine stars of Matariki from Rarangi Rock on Thursday, June 23.

Unsplash

With the help of telescopes, early risers will get a close look at the nine stars of Matariki from Rarangi Rock on Thursday, June 23.

“Getting kids down to witness Matariki is exactly what our trust is there for.”

Harper said only those who got up early would be able to catch a glimpse of the stars.

“Matariki rises in the early morning on the horizon, and disappears just before sunrise. Anybody that can drag their kids out of bed at 5.30am is doing well, but it’s not viewable at night,” Harper said.

Free buses will leave from My Space, 18 Kinross Street, Blenheim at 5.30am on Thursday, June 23, and there will be breakfast afterwards. For more information, or to book a place on the bus, contact youthworker@myt.org.nz.

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