A holographic Erisa Hines, a driver for the Mars Curiosity rover, speaks to participants in "Destination: Mars."
Mankind has never set foot on planet Mars, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore the planet portrayed in movies such as “The Martian” or “Mission to Mars”. Recently, NASA announced their new “Destination: Mars” virtual reality experience which the public can view at the Kennedy Space Center’s visitors area. Designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, this mixed-reality experience transports people to planet Mars, where they can explore the geology, wander through the Martian landscape, and even plan out routes for the Curiosity rover, which currently roams the planet.
This virtual experience was designed using the Microsoft HoloLens, which is one of a recent slew of virtual reality products on the market. Developers at JPL used OnSight, a rover missions operations tool co-developed by Microsoft and JPL, to re-create a Martian space that can be viewed through the HoloLens. In the virtual world, tour guides including astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Erisa Hines guide viewers through the landscape. They lead visitors to locations where scientists have found exciting new discoveries like rock formations and dust devils, allowing people to see very detailed images of what the surface of Mars actually looks like. Essentially a holographic tour of Mars, this virtual recreation is exactly what the rovers and astronauts would see when exploring it. Unlike the rovers and astronauts though, users aren’t limited to one area and can also “teleport” to explore outside of their realm of vision.
While allowing the public to experience what it would be like to walk across the surface of Mars, this virtual reality program also has more practical uses in the scientific realm. JPL engineers can make annotations to mark different geographies or exploration sites, jump from one remote location to another, and even collaborate on one viewing screen. This new technology allows them to virtually plan out routes for their autonomous vehicles, as well as figure out which outcroppings of rocks to explore. Abigail Fraeman, a scientist assigned to the Curiosity Mars mission, describes using the program with her colleagues in order to figure out the path of coordinates to dictate Curiosity’s route and determine the area that separates two different rock formations. "OnSight makes the whole process of analyzing the data feel a lot more natural to me. It really gives me the sense that I'm in the field when I put it on. Thinking about Martian geology is a lot more intuitive when I can stand in the scene and walk around the way I would if I were in the field," Fraeman enthuses. Scientists like her use programs developed by JPL to communicate with autonomous vehicles, but mixed reality programs can also be used in other ingenious ways. For instance, one program allows engineers to virtually assemble and design rovers that they will eventually send into Space.
“Destination: Mars” gives mankind a real glimpse into parts of the universe that we cannot yet explore, and that only a select few may ever get to see. In this way, people can visit new places without even having to leave their own home. If you ever find yourself in Florida, be sure to stop by the Kennedy Space Center before January 1, 2017, to be inspired by a domain so close yet so far.