What if you could walk on Mars with fellow scientists or bring 3D spacecraft designs to life as holograms before they’re ever built? That’s what a group of researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California wanted to show us.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is at the center of innovation in virtual and augmented reality, working with Microsoft’s HoloLens to produce applications that support a variety of missions, including the Curiosity Mars Rover and the International Space Station.
Walking on Mars with OnSight
During a private demo day at NASA’s JPL center, researchers gave us a first-hand look (see video above) at their latest technology that enables scientists to work virtually on Mars using the HoloLens. The software, called OnSight, is a collaboration between NASA and Microsoft to give rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices.
NASA staff had us don a HoloLens headset and walk around a wide-open room. Looking through the headset, you immediately realized you had been transported to the rover’s Martian field site. You could stroll around the rocky surface or crouch down to examine the landscape from different angles. The OnSight system also overlays rover data in the your field of view, blending a view of the physical world with computer-generated imagery.
The OnSight technology is a unique way to explore Mars and a significant enhancement from how scientists examined Mars imagery prior. Instead of trying to make inferences about what you are seeing off a computer screen, now scientists could explore 3D stereo views and also get a natural sense of depth and understanding of spatial relationships.
Hologram space design with ProtoSpace
For NASA JPL and Microsoft, its all about using the HoloLens and software as a tool to interact with Mars and 3D simulations in a more natural human way.
In addition to showing us a demo of their OnSight technology that enables scientists to “work on Mars,” the group also took us into a neighboring room to demo their latest ProtoSpace software. The software application brings 3D spacecraft designs into the world as holograms, letting you naturally walk around a scale version of a rover and examine every part. In this case, we got an up close look at a replica of the future Mars 2020 Rover, Curiosity’s newer sibling.
With HoloLens on, you could walk through the floating hologram rover, allowing you to see each and every component. Like what we saw with OnSight, ProtoSpace provides different perspectives of the rover, which could help researchers spot problems ahead of launch.
Future ‘Mixed Reality’ Plans
Although the demo of OnSight and ProtoSpace is not publicly available yet, NASA and Microsoft will be offering a public guided tour of an area of Mars with astronaut Buzz Aldrin this summer in a modified demo called “Destination: Mars.”
The interactive exhibit will also use the HoloLens and will open at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida this Summer. You will be able to explore the reconstructed Mars imagery from the Curiosity Rover while Buzz Aldrin, an Apollo 11 astronaut who walked on the moon in 1969, serves as your holographic tour guide on the journey. Curiosity Mars rover driver Erisa Hines of JPL will also appear holographically, leading you to places on Mars where scientists have made exciting discoveries and explaining what they learned about the planet.
JPL is also developing mixed reality applications in support of astronauts on the International Space Station and engineers responsible for the design and assembly of spacecraft. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who recently returned from his historic “Year in Space” activities, used one of these applications to make the first Skype call from space to mission control and had a little fun fending off some space invaders too.
Both uses of the technology we demoed show enormous potential in the way scientists can collaborate with each other and interact with virtual objects. Technology like this will further help connect astronauts to experts on the ground, not only transforming the way NASA works with robotic spacecraft for future missions, but maybe change how the rest of the world will collaborate with each other in the not to distant future as well.