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New reality allows visits to Mars

“Mars has been flown by, orbited, smacked into, radar examined, and rocketed onto, as well as bounced upon, rolled over, shoveled, drilled into, baked and even blasted. Still to come: Mars being stepped on.”

Buzz Aldrin, in his book ‘Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration’

 

Well we might not actually be able to step on Mars yet, but thanks to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Microsoft HoloLens, we will be able to experience Mars through mixed reality, in new exhibit, ‘Destination: Mars’, due to open at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida this summer.

The exhibit will allow guests to ‘visit’ various sites on Mars that have been reconstructed using real imagery from NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon in 1969, will be your ‘holographic tour guide’ on the journey, alongside Curiosity Mars Rover driver Erisa Hines who will (also holographically) introduce participants to the places on Mars where scientists have made exciting discoveries and explain what we have learned about the planet.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been collaborating with Microsoft for many years on a number of different projects. These range from using Kinect to operate Robonaut (a human-like robot) on the International Space Station (ISS), to an Xbox 360 game that focuses on landing the Curiosity Mars Rover. ‘Destination: Mars’ resulted from JPL’s collaboration with Microsoft on ‘OnSight’ - a “mixed reality application that allows engineers and scientists operating the Curiosity to walk around the environment the Rover is operating using HoloLens,” Doug Ellison, visualisation producer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory tells me.

“We found that as an experience, it was so engaging that we had to make a version that the public could enjoy in some way. Hence, ‘Destination: Mars’ was born!”

A collaboration between JPL and Microsoft’s HoloLens team, ‘Destination: Mars’ took about nine months to develop, beginning with the core code behind ‘OnSight’, and debuting at the Build developer conference in March. The experience relies on mixed reality – very different to Virtual Reality (VR), as a Microsoft spokesperson explained:

“With VR, the user is completely immersed in a computer-generated reality, or virtual world. While immersed in a virtual world, users are best advised to stay seated or keep still to avoid collisions with physical objects they cannot see in the real world. Holographic experiences on Windows are about delivering a mixed reality-- the ability to blend holograms into your real world-- that lets you enjoy your digital life while staying more connected to the world around you.”

This holographic experience is the key to ‘Destination: Mars’. Ellison explains how it will work in practice:

“It’s a shared experience that lets people virtually walk on the surface of Mars in groups of eight. After being welcomed to the experience and watching a video explaining how to wear a HoloLens, you will be escorted into a room where you put on the device and see a holographic Mars globe on top of a real pedestal at the front of the room. After a brief introduction, you then enter a larger room, about 30 x 20 feet, where the main experience is. After our holographic host, Buzz Aldrin, welcomes you, you’ll visit three different sites explored by Curiosity. At each one, there will be something interesting to learn about. We also have a second holographic host, a member of the Curiosity engineering team, Erisa Hines. She is joined by a life-size holographic Curiosity Mars Rover and walks you through some of the amazing discoveries we’ve made.”

Although it’s still early stages, Ellison is excited by the potential of the sort of technology used in ‘Destination: Mars’. “We know we want to take this kind of experience and share it with as many people as we can, and the rapid pace of innovation in this field is only going to help. If we’ve learned one thing on this journey, it’s that the sky is not the limit.”

But there are challenges, as Ellison noted, “It’s tricky to tell people: ‘Have a walk around…. OK – now look at this thing right here’,” but he thinks they got the blend right, allowing balanced amounts of free exploration and directed focus. And Augmented Reality (AR) and mixed reality have huge potential for the space industry. “AR can help an astronaut spend their time more effectively and efficiently on board the Space Station. This means more science, more experiments, and the ability to react to the challenges of spaceflight,” explains Ellison. “Knowing that an entire team of specialists on the ground can be right there with you in AR, is very empowering. That’s something we’ve demonstrated with Project Sidekick and the Microsoft HoloLens that Scott Kelly used on the space station.”

So it’s safe to say Ellison feels pretty good about where ‘reality’ technology can take us. And the best part is that it’s opening up other worlds, not just to astronauts, but to the rest of us as well. As Ellison quite rightly says, “Right now, 100 million miles away, there’s a one-ton robot exploring the surface of another world. That in itself is an amazing achievement. But now with these new technologies, we can take that robotic experience and turn it into a fundamentally human experience; walking on another world, exploring just like we’re born to. It’s an amazing time to be working in this field.”

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Kate Hoy

Kate Hoy is Editor of IDG Connect

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