Business Insider Edition

We went inside a virtual simulation of a black hole, and it was a mind-bending experience

Aria Bendix , Business Insider US
 Apr 22, 2019, 11:41 AM
(Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration)
  • Before he died, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen worked on a simulation machine called the Holodome, which turned his passions into virtual experiences.
  • The commercial version of that machine debuted this week at TED 2019 in Vancouver, Canada.
  • The Holodome features three mind-bending simulations: a climb atop Mount Everest, a peek inside paintings by Monet, and a journey into the center of a black hole.
  • Visit the Business Insider South Africa homepage for more stories.

The annual TED conference in Vancouver, Canada, is known for its thought-provoking talks, but it has also become a platform to showoff futuristic technologies.

This year's attendees can walk through "pollution pods" that mimic the air quality in cities, visit robots that regulate breathing, and talk to machines that determine how "funny" you are.

For the past few days, the more daring attendees have lined up outside the Holodome, a simulation machine developed by Vulcan, a private company started by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The device offers three virtual experiences: a climb atop Mount Everest, a peek inside paintings by Claude Monet, and a frightening journey into the centre of a black hole. All three concepts were influenced by Allen's own interests.

Vulcan's director of business development, Cooper Moo, said the commercial version of the Holodome has been in development for close to five years and is premiering for the first time at TED. Vulcan is now looking for partners to help scale the project.

Though Allen was never able to view the final product, the timing of the machine's debut is still fortuitous. A week earlier, scientists published the first-ever image of a black hole.

"We got stupidly lucky," said Moo, who noted the images in the simulation closely resemble the one released to the world on April 10.

Take a look at how the Holodome is bringing Allen's vision to life.

Entering the Holodome feels a bit ominous, but the simulation itself is more transcendental than frightening.

Aria Bendix/Business Insider

Star Trek fans might be familiar with the machine's namesake, the holodeck - a fictional room that simulates different environments.

Images are projected across all 360 degrees of the dome.

Aria Bendix/Business Insider

The structure contains four projectors and 16 speakers, along with fibre acoustics that allow you to feel the vibrations when a star explodes.

The black hole simulation, narrated by actress Viola Davis, begins with a burst of blue light.

Aria Bendix/Business Insider

Given that scientists still have a lot to learn about black holes, the team at Vulcan refers to the simulation as "a poetic journey" as opposed to a technical recreation.

A ring of light quickly begins to form, representing heated gas particles that orbit the event horizon, or "point of no return."

Aria Bendix/Business Insider

Moo said instances of motion sickness in the Holodome are low compared to virtual reality.

Eventually, participants are presented with a recognisable model of a black hole, which gets closer and closer until it swallows you in complete darkness.

Aria Bendix/Business Insider

"Clearly it's tough to get images of a black hole ... so thank you Katie [Bouman, one of the scientists who helped capture the image] for the timing," Moo said.

The Mount Everest simulation feels equally perilous. Participants follow two climbers as they try to ascend the mountain without bottled oxygen.

Aria Bendix/Business Insider

Before his death in 2018, Allen had dreams of climbing Everest. Though he was never able to accomplish the task, the Holodome let him virtually experience the climb during his lifetime.

Moo said the most popular experience is the Monet exhibit, which was completed just days before TED started.

Aria Bendix/Business Insider

"We always say we love all our children, but the Monet piece is just blowing people's minds," Moo told Business Insider. "It's somewhat of a surprise."

Participants are given the rare sensation of being inside a painting like Monet's Woman with a Parasol.

Aria Bendix/Business Insider

Though each experience is different, Moo said Allen had one goal in mind: "He wanted to take people places they could not otherwise go."

Receive a single WhatsApp every morning with all our latest news: click here.

Also from Business Insider South Africa:

  • Indicators
  • JSE Indexes

Get the best of our site delivered to your inbox every day.

Sign Up