Do you like space? Like, outer-space? Do you believe that going there and exploring is important to the future of humanity? I guess these days we have to ask the question, do you believe it exists? If not, this is probably not the article for you. For the rest of us, we owe a great debt of gratitude to agencies like NASA for making it their mission to cross the final frontier. And, to a lesser extent, agencies like NASA owe a debt, even if only a tiny one, to Virtual Reality.
Okay, to say that NASA owes a debt to VR may be reversing the situation, but NASA has certainly put VR to use and VR has helped to make space travel and the jobs that need to be done up there a bit safer by allowing astronauts to train on earth for their duties in space.
NASA has used virtual reality since at least the early 90’s when their virtual environments consisted of wire frame models only. Since then they have continued to upgrade their equipment. They now have a VR room with a bespoke VR set up that even has tracked gloves with pressure sensors on them to know when the astronaut is gripping something. In this room are physical representations of virtual objects, which are themselves representations of the real objects they will have to work with in space. These objects are hung from wires and pulleys so that moving them is similar to moving an object in space where it will have mass and all of the forces that go with it, but not weight. This, combined with a fully accurate virtual representation of their workspace is the closest thing the astronauts have to doing the real thing here on earth where a mistake isn’t going to cost a lot of money or human life.
More recently NASA has been using VR to visit Mars before making the trip there in real life. They have partnered with MIT and fusion.net to create the Mars 2030 Experience which allows them to simulate life on Mars and, with the help of physics simulations, allows them to test vehicle performance. The Martian landscape was created from years of Mars surface architecture studies and is as accurate as it can be based on current information. But this isn’t only a tool for NASA. It will be an experience we can all enjoy if we have the equipment to do so. The Mars 2030 Experience is to be released for free through Steam VR and fusion.net for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive as well as other platforms.
NASA has shown that VR is more than just a plaything. In fact, it was a tool at the beginning and only became a plaything later. During the early days of VR, devices were quite expensive ranging from 50,000 to 200,000 dollars. Thanks to the popularity of video games the components required to make VR work well have significantly dropped in price making VR far more ubiquous and impressive. In the beginning I said that NASA owed a debt to VR, the truth is, VR owes a debt to NASA and other research agencies who kept VR alive for research purposes when the rest of the world wrote it off as a failed experiment.
1980’s Virtual Reality – NASA Video:
Mars Immersion: NASA Concepts Bring Precision to New Virtual Reality Experience: