A conversation with Sasha Samochina who makes space accessible to everyone.
What do space, art and virtual reality have in common? In two words: Sasha Samochina. She is an Immersive Visualization Producer who works in an extraordinary office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Through her work, she helps NASA to make space more accessible for non-astronauts and enables traveling to places where the public usually can’t go. This may involve taking a walk on Mars, following the Cassini mission through the universe, or simply floating in space. Through Sasha’s visualization skills, she pioneered the very first 360° video release on social media for NASA and continuously works on translating NASA’s larger-than-life projects to the public.
At the recent premiere of the very first me Convention in Frankfurt, Sasha Samochina held a talk on the topic “New Realities”. This brand-new conference organised by Mercedes-Benz and South by Southwest (SXSW) brings technology, design and creative experts together for a dialogue about future-focused topics.
Sasha was always reluctant to simply choose one favourite topic of interest. Instead, she chose four: art, music, technology and science. At the age of 19, she decided to study film, video and new media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Through her studies, she was able to work on concepts to visually showcase science communication. And this art ultimately enabled her to combine all of her topics of interest.
This charming and fashionable personality fascinates people from all walks of life given her passion and knowledge about technology, art and space travel. During our interview with Sasha, we talked about new realities, aliens, exoplanets and the science of today as well as the art of tomorrow.
Some would say Virtual Reality is just a new technology. Where do you see the art aspect in your work?
I’m an artist who works in the science world and Virtual Reality is more than just a software engineering system. To have a vision is really the art aspect of it, designing things with forward-thinking ideas. In any case, art takes a huge part in my everyday life, starting from drawing small designs, to mocking up videos, or simply making little sketches to sell ideas and formulate new ones. It is really evident in every single aspect of Virtual Reality and in my daily job.
Is Virtual Reality truly a new reality or is it just a medium? Can a medium ever be a reality?
I suppose that’s rather subjective. Is Virtual Reality a “real” reality? To me, it depends on what the content of the work is.
Looking at the 360° videos which we did, it was all about showing people things they usually can’t see. So, it was a “real” reality since you can see what it’s like to actually stand on Mars. Mars does exist. Only you can’t just go there without the medium of Virtual Reality.
So, what we do is to take reality and make it more accessible. Meaning, we give access to places you usually wouldn’t be able to reach. And one of these places is space.
Why are we so obsessed with space?
I grew up looking up at the stars and was wondering “What is going on up there?”. I felt inspired by people like astronomer Carl Sagan who explored the world in an artful but scientific way. When you look at the sky and see this infinity, you can’t help but feel tiny and small. This emotion is addictive. And I think there are many people who can relate to this kind of feeling.
How do you tell inconceivable stories, like infinity, aliens, or stories that are beyond our imagination? Do you think Virtual Reality or technologies help to go beyond that limited imagination one day?
Actually, this last February NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope found seven earth-like planets orbiting a single star – with three of those planets located in the habitable zone. The system is called TRAPPIST-1.
We, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, created an artist concept showcasing our vision of the planets which is based on the data we have collected from observing them. It’s an idea of something that seems inconceivable in more realistic forms.
Certainly, finding life is one of NASA’s objectives, but until we find real life we can’t just make up what it might look like. It was a great discovery when NASA found evidence of former flowing, briny water on Mars. Suddenly everyone’s minds sparked thinking if there was water, then there was life.
Do you think Virtual Reality is the digital Wild West right now?
Definitely! There is still so much to be explored and discovered. One of my favourite things was figuring out how to edit 360° videos and now it comes packed with a common software programme that everyone can use. These kinds of technologies are progressing in a rapid way, but there still is so much room to experiment. And that’s what I find to be the most exciting part of virtual reality. You can still have an original idea that hasn’t already been done.