Space agency NASA might make headlines for what it does in space but its activities on planet Earth are just as groundbreaking, with the US government agency doubling down on virtual reality technology as it moves ever closer to sending the first man to Mars.
The software lead at NASA Johnson Space Centre’s Hybrid Reality Lab, Matthew Noyes, says hybrid reality tech has now reached a point where it’s invaluable for before, during and after space flight, with wide-ranging applications that were not possible until now. NASA has been using virtual reality since the 1980s, with headsets that look extremely similar to the ones used today, but VR can now be used for everything from astronaut training to helping them exercise on the International Space Station.
“We marry the very nice graphical performance of VR today with physical objects that we 3D print, allowing people to grab and interact with tools in the real world that are very inexpensive to produce, overlaid in virtual reality with really good graphics on top of those tools,” Mr Noyes said. He added that during a space walk, for example, an astronaut might want to use a pistol-grip tool, but they can cost millions of dollars to make and weigh differently on Earth to what they would in space. And if the astronaut drops it during training it could break.
“Instead, we create a 3D-printed version for a few hundred dollars that we can track in VR. They can squeeze a little button on it to make the rotor spin inside. We’ve had a lot of excitement from a lot of astronauts. They say the ... interactions feel like they’re actually in space.
“We’ve never had the ability to create a sense of presence so strong in an astronaut that when they encounter a life-threatening situation we throw at them, they actually feel their life is in danger. That’s what we’re trying to capture. It’s not just having them learn a procedure; it’s about putting them in the same emotional state they’d actually be in, so we can capture how they would react in that situation and, if possible, change the procedure to account for that.”
According to Mr Noyes, who is in the country this week for Melbourne tech and creative festival Pause, VR tech is also useful for keeping astronauts healthy.
“We can help astronauts exercise. If they’re up in space they need to do about two hours of exercise a day to mitigate bone-density and muscle loss, and that can get kind of boring. If we can replace the ISS environment with maybe their favourite running track on Earth, or images of their family, like nostalgia therapy for dementia patients, that might be extremely useful on a mission to Mars.”
NASA is working on sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Mr Noyes said while the new Trump administration might shift the goalposts, that’s “perfectly acceptable”.
“We hope to be able to get there soon,” he said. A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers are on and around Mars already, and Mr Noyes said there was already VR content from the red planet available.
As for what’s happening closer to home, Mr Noyes thinks the sky’s the limit as far as consumer applications for NASA’s VR work go.
“We’ve worked with video game companies so that they can create a more accurate game to generate better sales, but one that also allows us to inspire the public,” he said. “And one of the things we focus on in terms of the realism is creating a sense of weightlessness. We have a sister branch at NASA that’s working on a VR capability for the Active Response Gravity Offload System, or ARGOS. It’s an intelligent robot that attaches to your back via a crane, and offloads your body weight to make you feel like you’re in zero G. Once you add a VR headset, you can move around the handrails outside the ISS.
“I think there are definite areas for commercialisation here, in something like an arcade. Imagine being a spaceman and jumping around an area the size of half a tennis court.”