Interview: IM360 And Digital Domain Discuss Partnership With Syfy For 'The Expanse' Virtual Reality App


Syfy is debuting its new series The Expanse Monday night, a TV adaptation of James S.A. Corey's space opera set 200 years in a future where the human race has colonized the solar system. Set across the universe at a time when the U.N. controls Earth, Mars is its own independent power and humans rely on air and water from the asteroid belt, there is no denying that The Expanse will captivate viewers.

With its out of this world visual elements and special effects, The Expanse is the perfect show to feature an accompanying app that is set in virtual reality.

Allowing viewers to be further immersed into the show, Syfy partnered up with the VR platform company IM360 and special effects company Digital Domain to release The Expanse app, which debuted at San Diego Comic-Con in July of this year.

"They [Syfy] wanted to do something a little different, and they thought virtual reality would be a really good fit," Andrew McGovern, VP of media and entertainment for IM360, told Tech Times. "So we started to work with them on coming up with some great creative ideas around how we can take some of the assets and some of the storyline from Expanse and recreate it in 360 and virtual reality. The Expanse viewers can have a little bit more of an intimate experience to some of the story and to the ships that actually play a pivotal role within The Expanse storyline."

The app debuted with a 360-degree video that lets viewers explore The Canterbury freighter ship featured in the premiere episode. The ship hauls ice from the moons of Saturn to the asteroid belt, and users explore it by using a headset like Google's Cardboard VR Viewer (although the app can also be experienced in 2D without a headset).

Syfy gave the team from Digital Domain assets from the series, including a sequence of the ship they wanted the experience to focus on. Digital Domain was then able to create a slow tour of this huge spaceship that makes the viewer feel like they're up close and personal with it as they float in space.

"Without revealing the plot in the pilot episode, I think we were able to generate something that matched the ship that's in the show from their assets by showing off its best angles and qualities and just to get the sense of just how big this thing is," Hanzhi Tang, lead supervisor for The Expanse, told Tech Times. "And also just demonstrate the plot where they are out in space on their own. There's this very empty feeling. They're harvesting ice in space and there is nothing around them."

Syfy's VR app then released a second video that includes a fly-by of the Tycho Station, which is the largest ship in the solar system in the series, and the Nauvoo starship, which is a Mormon missionary ship (along with free Google Cardboard VR viewers), at New York Comic Con in October.

While viewers only get to experience the outside views of the ships for now, the team working on the app says viewers will be able to further immerse themselves in the show's storyline as the series continues.

"Part of the whole joint venture for IM360, we're very strong believers in combining the visual-effects world with the live-action world, so that's why Digital Domain is such a great partner," McGovern said. "They're renowned for their work in the digital effects industry and we can tap into their expertise—and blending it with live-action virtual reality really creates an awesome experience. We think going forward a lot of content will reflect that and it will provide much better storytelling, much better immersion for viewers."

IM360 will also continue its relationship with Syfy, so the network could possibly release VR apps for other shows and content.

"What our plan with Syfy is, not only are we creating content for them, as what you saw in these two videos of the ship, but also part of the strategy with Syfy and what they wanted was they wanted to start to roll out a VR platform," McGovern said.

Similar to IM360's NYT VR app for The New York Times, the company has created a distribution platform for Syfy where it can create a catalog of all its VR content, whether it is multiple videos around The Expanse show in virtual reality or different shows.

"We started to create not only the apps that you saw, but there's always a whole back-end that's going to allow us to publish new content dynamically to these apps and allow them to grow a whole catalog of virtual reality content and also start publishing new platforms in the coming months to PlayStation VR or Oculcus Rift, etc."

McGovern revealed that the teams are now pushing The Expanse app to different platforms that will be released in the upcoming weeks.

"I really think that, with VR, you can't get that sense of immersion with any other platform, whether its moving your head around or using your finger," he said. "Once you put on goggles, that sense of immersion is unparalleled. You can't beat it. The opportunity of telling stories when you have that level of immersion, it opens up so many new doors."

There is no denying that The Expanse app opens the door to exploring the solar system, just like in the Syfy series.

The Expanse app can be downloaded for free for iOS and Android, and the immersive videos are also available on YouTube. The 10-episode Expanse series debuts at 10 p.m. EST on Dec. 14 on Syfy.

It follows the debut of Syfy's three-part miniseries rendition of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, which runs from 8 to 10 p.m. Dec. 14-16.

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