NASA is making its first ever appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show, the technology industry extravaganza in Las Vegas that kicks off Wednesday.
The space agency is giving visitors a virtual or semi-virtual ride on board an Orion spacecraft and a you-are-there perspective of the Kennedy Space Center. To get these experiences, would-be astronauts go through demos using headsets like the Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens.
Jeff Norris, mission operations innovation lead at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained that NASA is at CES because it wants to build on a tradition of cooperation between the space agency and the consumer electronics industry. In the past, their collaborations have been very productive.
“We’ve been able to use things that are consumer electronics products and adapt them to the unique problems that we face in our work,” Norris says. “That’s been a core part of my lab, which focuses on augmented reality and virtual reality.”
Norris says his lab works through partnerships with all of the major players in the augmented reality and virtual reality business, including Microsoft, Facebook, HTC, Sony, Valve, and Samsung. The Jet Propulsion Lab is currently using PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and HoloLens for various projects and experiments like operating rovers on distant planets and maneuvering robots.
“We’re convinced that these technologies that everyone is excited about at CES this year are going to have a transformative impact on the way that we explore space,” Norris says.
The billions of dollars of investment that are flowing into virtual reality and augmented reality hardware can help NASA. Never mind that much of the industry focus is on video games and helping make Hollywood films more life-like.
“What’s driving the development of these devices is primarily entertainment, but they’re trying to build systems that make people feel like they’re in a different place,” Norris says. “And that’s not too different from making engineers and scientists feel present in a distant environment like Mars that happens to be a real place.”
Norris’ team has worked to apply tools like game controllers and video game engines to NASA problems for many years. That was long before it began exploring virtual reality and augmented reality.
“People make better operational decisions if they’re wearing a headset,” Norris says.
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Norris’ team of a dozen scientists is using virtual reality headsets, including the Oculus Rift, to replicate the experience astronauts will have operating the Curiosity Rover on Mars.
Another project, which is in the testing stage, uses the PlayStation VR to control the humanoid robot, R2, also known as Robonaut 2. R2 is currently on board the International Space Station, and a mock-up of the robot is at the NASA CES booth.
“We’ve previously tested game controllers, Microsoft Kinect, and Oculus Rift to make controlling the robot as easy as moving a human hand,” Norris says. “PlayStation VR allows us to more naturally control a humanoid robot.”
NASA currently has two Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headsets on board the International Space Station, which is the result of work from Norris’ team. The goal for that project, called Sidekick, is using mixed reality as a tool for augmenting the performance of astronauts aboard the space station.
“We’re focused on how to help astronauts perform tasks more efficiently by connecting them with ground operators and giving them a holographic instruction manual,” Norris says.
Like PlayStation VR, the HoloLens is not commercially available yet. But NASA is able to experiment with this technology very early.
Norris compares the medium of virtual reality to the early days of television in the 1960s, when the Apollo program was shared by the world.
“Over 600 million people watched the moon landing, which is more than the amount of televisions that existed at the time,” Norris said. “That shared experience was transformative for many people, and it was through a new consumer entertainment medium. That’s the opportunity we see with VR and AR.”
In addition to the projects on display at CES, NASA has partnered with Fusion and MIT to develop the Mars 2030 Experience for virtual reality headsets.
“Part of NASA’s purpose is to share what we’re learning with other people,” Norris says. “VR and AR are technologies that are going to be transformative in that domain as well.”
The NASA booth is inside the Gaming and Virtual Reality showcase at CES. The Technology Drives Exploration to Mars app for Android and iOS devices explores the technologies that will allow humans to land on Mars and live on the Red Planet for an extended period of time. And the Exploration 3DV iPad app uses augmented reality to cover several different aspects of NASA’s human deep space exploration.