Catching the school bus can often be a traumatic event growing up. Food fights, physical fights, rowdy teenagers and smelly woollen school jumpers. But all that changed for some lucky American students.

The VR Studio of VFX house Framestore – best known for its work on the Hollywood film Gravity – was given a brief by advertising agency McCann for aerospace company Lockheed Martin to transport students to Mars in a school bus.

And the best part – it happened without the students having any idea. 

Now Framestore has released a video taking us behind-the-scenes on the creation of the project. You can watch it above.

With humans expected to arrive on Mars in the first manned mission within the next two decades, the desire was to have the students unravel and experience space in a way that hasn’t been done before. 

But what may seem like a straightforward brief was a laborious task for the Framestore team - head of creative technology Alexander Rea says it was probably one of the craziest requests he has received.

We take a look at the process.

Integration with bus movement

 

Maybe the best part of the virtual experience is its integration with the bus. What was seen on the screen moved accordingly to the movement of the bus, including the speed, if you go over a bump, and when it turned left or right. 

The team used Game Engine and Unreal 4 – a physical-based render, meaning it wants to simulate the real world – to map out 250 square miles of Mars’ surface, matching the real streets of Washington DC.

To make this happen the team had to use custom-screen technology, GPA, 3-axis accelerometer, magnetometer and laser surface velocimeter so the bus became a virtual reality headset itself.

The laser points itself on the ground and tells how far you’ve gone forward or backward. 

The team showcased geological features of Mars, the Curiosity rover, a realistic base camp and a massive Martian dust storm which was enhanced with surround sound, with a bit of tweaking to coax the rendering engine to create what the team wanted.

Physically outfitting the bus

 

Then they bought a school bus, gutted it and installed switchable electric glass screens (replicating normal windows) that transitioned from transparent to opaque. These were paired with 4K transparent LCD displays - hand built in Korea and China for the project.

The team re-outfitted the bus back to resemble normality for the unsuspecting children.

Reaction to the project

 

The students who thought they were on a normal field trip were given a shock when the bus transformed into a virtual reality experience where they could see, hear and feel what the surface of Mars was like without the need of clunky headsets or goggles.

“I think what makes it magical is when the bus stops moving all of the hardware and software stops moving, it just feels like your own Mars,” says Framestore senior producer Sue McNamara. 

The project was debuted at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in April where more than 2500 attendees took the trip to Mars.