This year is a particularly historic year for Virtual Reality (VR) technology. While the technology itself first became a reality in 1968 via Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull’s Augmented Reality Head Mounted Display (ARHMD) system, the implementations where either both too crude and too expensive to really take off. It is only in 2014 when big brands such as Facebook, Valve Corporation, and Sony started throwing their resources at VR that the technology showed signs of maturity.
Fast forward a couple of years, and VR is finally here. Like any new innovative technology, it is currently priced at a premium. But it is by no means out of the average consumer’s reach. VR has become mainstream consumer technology.
As expected of a technology being developed by gaming and social networking, the current implementation of VR tech is geared towards entertainment, such as watching movies and playing video games. But several startups have already shown that it can easily be adapted for other uses, such as training and education. The most significant of these is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has already embraced VR tech even before the current crop of mainstream implementations.
Virtual Reality and Astronaut Training
The ability to simulate different environments and experiences have been used to give consumers to live out fantasies or stories that are not feasible nor safe. But in NASA’s case, they have always used simulation for training astronauts for the experience. This is particularly useful because no amount of reading, watching, or instructions will prepare a person for the experience of functioning while floating hundreds of miles above the Earth, which is arguably one of the most hostile working environments known to man.
The vacuum of space is easy for NASA to recreate on Earth. They have what’s called “Chamber A” inside building 32 of their Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where all the air is pumped out of the chamber and heated or cooled depending on the situation they want to simulate, but while this chamber does allow astronauts to experience being weightless in space, it is sorely lacking because it cannot fully simulate the actual activities that an astronaut will do while out on a mission. This is where VR tech comes in.
In the same space center as Chamber A is NASA’s Virtual Reality Lab, which is considered as the most advanced and extensive training facility that the Astronauts will encounter while on Earth. The Lab houses DOUG, which is an acronym for Dynamic Onboard Ubiquitous Graphics Program.
The DOUG uses one of the most powerful VR techs in the world to simulate anything and everything that an astronaut may have to see or encounter in space, from the vastness of space itself right down to the decals and electrical lines found on the space station.
The goal, according to NASA VR Lab manager, is to make sure that astronauts will have a semblance of familiarity with the missions they will undertake. By the time they actually get to the space station, they will feel like they’ve already been there after experiencing everything in Virtual Reality.
NASA Brings Space Exploration to the Mainstream via VR
Doug is an expensive setup that is of course out of reach of the average consumer, even those with budget to spare. However, that does not mean that space exploration through VR is out of reach of the average person. In fact, NASA itself teamed up with MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory and FUSION Media in order to design a VR-based simulation of a journey to the planet of Mars.
Dubbed as the Mars 2030 Experience, the program has been released for free on all the major mainstream VR platforms, such as the Oculus Rift, the Google Cardboard, and Valve/HTC’s Vive. The experience will also be broadcast on Twitch.
Space exploration simulators are admittedly feasible now and many developers can produce their own, especially since many VR companies encourage indie companies to jump in and publish their own software on their marketplaces, but the Mars 2030 Experience is unparalleled due to the fact that it leverages NASA’s resources to produce the most extensive and accurate Virtual Reality space exploration experience.
What Can We Expect in the Future
Once VR hardware becomes cheaper, we can expect even better space exploration simulators from other companies, even indie devs. This will allow the average person to reach the stars without resorting to inaccurate fantasy-based simulators or going the long way around and forging a career path as an astronaut. With mainstream VR tech finally ready for the mainstream, accurate space simulation is no longer exclusive to government agencies and extremely wealthy individuals.