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Virgin Hyperloop updates its vision for pod odysseys

Virgin Hyperloop’s latest concept for pod trips through a tube suggests that riders will never get a window seat — and that passersby along the route will never see the pods whizzing by.

The venture’s vision for hyperloop travel is laid out, from start to finish, in a video animation released this week.

Virgin Hyperloop’s head of passenger experience, Sara Luchian, told Architectural Digest that the design of the pods is meant to strike a balance between convenience and coolness.

“There’s no question that some people will ride for the novelty, but we have to assume that people will ride more than once,” she said. “And in that case, you don’t want bells and whistles every day.”

Luchian got an early dose of hyperloop coolness last November when she and Virgin Hyperloop’s chief technology officer, Josh Giegel, took the first passenger ride in a prototype pod last November.

That prototype had room for only two, but when the commercial-grade pod vehicles are ready for prime time, each one should be capable of carrying up to 28 people. Virgin Hyperloop’s system calls for sending multiple vehicles in a convoy through low-pressure tubes, separated by mere milliseconds.

Each vehicle would take advantage of magnetic levitation to hurtle between cities at near-supersonic speeds. Theoretically, getting from San Francisco to Los Angeles would take about a half-hour. But the first Virgin Hyperloop system is more likely to be built in a place like India, where officials have already signed a memorandum of understanding with British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

Virgin Hyperloop says it’s aiming to achieve safety certification for its system by 2025, with commercial operations beginning in 2030. Ticket prices haven’t yet been determined. Last year, a feasibility study suggested that a ticket for travel between Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh would cost on the order of $33.

The hyperloop concept was pioneered by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, back in 2013. Since then, Musk has established a startup called the Boring Company to build underground transit tunnels known as Loops, and has set up a collegiate competition for hyperloop pod racers. But he left the commercialization of city-to-city hyperloop systems to other ventures.

In 2017, Branson invested in one of those ventures, known as Hyperloop One, and had it rebranded as Virgin Hyperloop.

For its latest visualization of hyperloop travel, Virgin Hyperloop worked with Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) on the portal design and with Seattle-based Teague on the pod design.

If the system looks the way it does in the video, passengers will make their way through the airy halls of a hyperloop portal, walk through a circular hatch and take their seats amid an interior designed in neutral and wood tones.

One of the design challenges had to do with the absence of windows in the pods. “Other than elevators, most people have not experienced a moving windowless space,” Clint Rule, Teague’s creative director, told Architectural Digest.

Throughout the trip, the pods would be fully enclosed in their transit tube, unseen by the outside world. To cut down on the claustrophobia, Rule’s team created a dynamic ambient lighting system with a large virtual “skylight.” The system is designed to simulate the time of day and give passengers a subtle sense of forward motion during the trip.

Man Made Music created an auditory environment for the passenger experience, ranging from the background rhythms associated with travel to the “ding” that signals a pod’s arrival at its portal.

“The sonic cues of the Virgin Hyperloop identity system serve as a guide for passengers throughout their experience while instilling confidence, safety and clarity – you ‘feel’ it rather than ‘hear’ it,” said Joel Beckerman, Man Made Music’s founder and lead composer.

Hyperloop travel may sound like a sci-fi experience today — but Virgin Hyperloop’s goal is to turn it into an everyday experience in 10 years.

“Daily high-speed transport is currently not feasible for most people, but we want to change that notion,” Virgin Hyperloop CEO Jay Walder said. “Imagine being able to commute between cities that are currently hours apart in minutes – and the endless possibilities that opens up.”

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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