Orbiting 248 miles above the Earth in the International Space Station (ISS), Astronaut Alexander Gerst is using VR to participate in a scientific study examining how the brain draws information from sources like light, sound, and especially gravity to assist hand-eye coordination.
The French study bears the appropriate acronym GRASP: Gravitational References for Sensimotor Performance. It is part of a larger effort to expand knowledge of Sensori-motor Adaptations and Vestibular Pathologies headed by Dr. Joe McIntyre of the College de France in Paris.
Gerst participates in the experiments using a modified Oculus Rift headset aboard the space station to experience virtually simulated tasks like objects floating by for him to grab without gravity. A 3D motion tracker that updates in real time responds to his hand, arm and body motions. The headset has also been upgraded for this study with an infrared sensor unit worn around the waist to provide information about the position of Gerst’s body in relation to his arm movements.
McIntyre and his team’s research will help science “better understand how the central nervous system (CNS) integrates information from different sensations (e.g. sight or hearing), encoded in different reference frames, in order to coordinate the hand with the visual environment,” according to NASA’s description of the project.
Gravity is the frame of reference GRASP is most interested in. The same experiments are being replicated on Earth in multiple ways to compare differences in speed, adjustment and efficacy of hand-eye coordination with and without gravity.
“We rely on a wide range of experimental approaches, using both animals and humans, and we carefully tie together these different levels of investigation in an overreaching framework,” the research team said in an online statement.
“Basic understanding gained in experiments performed both on ground and in weightlessness will be applied to better diagnose and treat diseases, and conversely, pathological dysfunction may allow new insight into healthy brain function.”
Specifically, this VR-assisted research aims to “treat disorders relating to vertigo and dizziness, balance, spatial orientation and other aspects of the vestibular system,” according to the European Space Agency (ESA) which employs Gerst.
In addition, this application of VR for hand-eye coordination experimentation in space will help astronauts train for and perform spacewalks. It can also develop better ways of controlling robots remotely, the ESA said. This improved ability for remote control has the potential to improve robotics in surgery and other instances where equipment may need to be managed from afar.
Gerst is not the first astronaut to use VR technology aboard the ISS. In 2016, ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet tested out this specialized VR system, dubbed Perspectives VR Gear, even before it was made available on Earth. Pesquest’s blog can be found here.
Gerst’s blog also provides insight into both his experimentation with gravity and hand-eye coordination and his overall experiences as a part of the Horizons Mission on the ISS.
Image Credit: European Space Agency / Centre de Neurophysique, Physiologie et Pathologie