Well, I am sure no one would be surprised to know that NASA has used virtual reality for decades. But, the surprise is that the recent innovations in VR platforms like PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive, is also impacting NASA and how it trains astronauts for missions. Not just the masses, but this space agency is also glad about the consumer electronics industry’s investment in VR and AR. For them too, it has unlocked opportunities that weren’t available earlier.
Even before Sony launched PlayStation VR at retail, Jeff Norris, the lead at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had early versions of the device – back when it was called Project Morpheus – being used in tests to control the Robonaut 2 (R2) humanoid robot, which is currently on board the International Space Station.
Norris said, “PlayStation VR allows us to more naturally control a humanoid robot. It’s as natural as moving your own hand.” He added, “We can make astronauts feel they’re really present [where] they’re going to be exploring.”
In one of our previous blogs, titled “Weird yet cool VR inventions“, we also spoke about Manus VR gloves. These are a pair of gaming gloves which detects and then displays your hands in the virtual world. The Manus VR glove tracks hand movement, using a combination of high-tech sensors inside the glove. And now, don’t be surprised to know that NASA is already using a prototype version of the gloves which aren’t available to the public yet. These are being used to help train astronauts before they head to the International Space Station. NASA uses the data gloves with the Vive. It has built mock-up rooms on Earth that replicate the layout of the International Space Station. Astronauts are able to navigate virtual spaces and pick up and use tools, just as they would in space.
But that’s not all about how VR is helping NASA. This immersive technology has also helped the agency in planning its first exploration of Mars in the 2030s. Norris said, “Because I work in mission operations, my team has been involved in how things are going on Mars, and how things are accomplished. He further added, “We have this new medium that we can make astronauts feel like they’re really present in these environments that they’re going to be exploring. What does it look like standing on a hilltop on Mars? What does it feel like to be on the space station? These are the questions in so many people’s minds, and VR is a way we can answer them.”
And with this continuous hard work and innovation, there is a surprise for us too. The Red Planet will soon be here at home, for all of us to explore. NASA has partnered with television network Fusion and is launching The Mars 2030 experience across Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Samsung VR Gear, iOS and Android, although no release date has been given yet. Using Unreal Engine 4, MIT and Fusion are collaborating with NASA to create a 7.7 square mile interactive environment on Mars that players can traverse on foot or by a rover. The experience features actual topography, authentic gravity, and real lighting, as well as authentic missions based on things astronauts will one day do on the planet.
So, this is just the beginning of how the world’s best space agency is benefitting from the ever growing VR technology and bringing the outer space to the living rooms around the world.