Taking a virtual-reality tour of the spaceship from 'Interstellar'

South by Southwest festivalgoers get the chance to experience a virtual re-creation of zero gravity and the interior of the Endurance spacecraft from the Oscar-winning film.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
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This geodesic dome was set up to let people take virtual-reality tours of the spacecraft from the movie "Interstellar." Dara Kerr/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas -- A curious white geodesic dome appeared in a dusty dirt lot near downtown Austin this week. From the outside the structure resembled a planetarium, which is fitting because on the inside something very spacey was going on.

The dome housed a virtual-reality experience for the Academy Award-winning film "Interstellar" during the South by Southwest festival, which kicked off on Friday bringing together technorati, filmmakers and musicians. In the dome, anyone could take a simulated 3D trip through the movie's Endurance spaceship and experience the feeling of weightlessness.

An assistant helps fit festiver-goers with an Oculus Rift headset for the virtual reality experience. Jack Dempsey, Invision for Paramount Home Media Distribution

"You're taken through the very set we worked on, making the movie," said actor Bill Irwin, who played the voice of the robot TARS in the film. "If you've dreamed of space travel and a NASA environment, the Interstellar virtual-reality experience is a chance to feel what it's like. You won't believe you're just sitting still."

Crowds of festivalgoers lined up to give the virtual-reality experience a try. As each person entered the dome, they were escorted to one of three comfy recliners.

"Welcome astronaut," said one of the assistants -- outfitting the person with an Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset and a pair of earphones.

Once the headset was on, the images displayed were seen through the eyes of an astronaut on board the spacecraft: a small chamber, different control dashboards, doorways to other rooms and windows with views of the cosmos. A voice echoed over the speaker telling the astronaut there wasn't much time and to move quickly to the next room.

As the astronaut traveled, the voice warned to "prepare for zero gravity." The astronaut could see the door to a walkway slide open and at the same time the real-world chair dropped a few inches and nothing but silence could be heard through the earphones. Pens, notebooks and other objects floated by. This full sensory experience made for a feeling of weightlessness.

Finally the astronaut arrived at the spaceship's command station and the trip was complete.

"Welcome back to Earth," the assistant said as he removed the participant's headset and earphones. "How was your flight?"

The simulated experience was 360 degrees, so as people looked from side to side and behind them they could see different aspects of Endurance. The entire trip took about three minutes.

Lewis Bennett, one of the people who took the tour, said that as he traveled through the spaceship he kept lifting his arms to interact with the rooms and objects.

"I had to hold my arms down because I knew people would be watching," he said. "The overall feeling was very real. I was like, 'Wow I'm really immersed in this.'"

CNET's Richard Nieva (@richardjnieva) and Dara Kerr (@darakerr) will be at SXSW in Austin, Texas, for the next week covering all things tech, geek culture and maybe even barbecue.