NASA has big hopes for virtual reality technology. The agency is developing a suite of virtual reality environments at Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland, that could be used for everything from geological research to repairing orbiting satellites.
One displays fiery ejections from the Sun. In another, scientists can watch magnetic fields pulse around the earth. A virtual rendering of an ancient lava tube in Idaho makes scientists feel like they're standing at the bottom of an actual cave.
"I think, and I hope, this can be extremely useful for NASA scientists," explains NASA engineer Thomas Grubb, who manages the program.
The goal, he says, is to scale up the use of virtual reality technology in NASA labs, and go beyond public applications like the Mars immersion program that allows users to explore the Martian surface. For example, NASA volcanologist Brent Garry is hoping that virtual visits to a rock formation in Idaho can help him plan research trips in real life. That same VR environment also allows users to measure distances and leave notes in the landscape.
"You know, it's cheaper to have people go to a lava tube in VR than to actually fly them out there for two weeks," says Grubb.
Another application in development could allow technicians repair satellites. People on earth could watch in real time as they manipulate actual tools in space. If the repairs are successful, satellites that would have died when their batteries did could keep working instead. "All of these things can save a lot of money or time, or just enable new things," says Grubb.
And Grubb has stumbled upon a new talent source to help develop the pilot programs: young students, some of them still in high school.
"I went into this [thinking] 'I'll take a couple interns or whatever,'" he says, imagining he'd get a single college student to help with some coding. But he says when he posted the job, "I got all these amazing students coming back. And I was like 'I want more than this.' I ended up with five [interns]."
One of them was high school senior Jackson Ames. In addition to taking some computer science classes in school, Ames plays video games. "A lot of the games require strategy and teamwork. One of my favorites is called 'Onward'," he explains. Onward is a war simulation game. It's supposed to make players feel like they're soldiers fighting a battle. You play with a VR headset covering your eyes and a controller in each hand.
"It's much more realistic than anything else," says Ames. "It adds a whole new layer."
Ames plays the game many times a week, which gives him an intuitive sense of what works, and what doesn't, in VR.
Young people also bring a certain ease with learning new technologies. Stewy Slocum, a 17-year-old college freshman who worked on the lava tube simulation, says video games got him interested in virtual reality programming too. But he's not that into gaming anymore — that was more of a high school thing — and he hadn't had much experience with VR technology before he arrived at NASA.
Still, he quickly learned how to use the VR system he was working with. That is often not the case for some more experienced researchers.
"There were definitely some older people who tried [the virtual reality system] and struggled at first, because they're not used to having all ten fingers working at once," says Garry. "They're like 'Am I going to fall? Am I going to trip on something?"
Once people navigate the initial learning curve, exploring virtual reality can go from alarming to fun pretty quickly. The growing popularity of virtual reality systems like the HTC Vibe and Oculus Rift for video games and education has made virtual reality techology more mainstream, but that can actually act as an obstacle to using VR technology for research, Grubb says.
"People think 'This is too cool and too much fun. How can this be work?'," he laughs. "We're trying to show scientists that, 'Hey, this technology has a lot to offer.'"
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NASA has high hopes for virtual reality and wants to use VR for everything - from geological research to fixing satellites. And to that end, they are tapping some new talent - high school students. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has the story.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Jackson Ames is a senior in Maryland, and one of his hobbies is video games.
JACKSON AMES: A lot of games that involve strategy and teamwork. One of my favorite ones is something called "Onward."
(SOUNDBITE OF FIREARMS FIRING)
HERSHER: Onward is a virtual reality war game. It's supposed to make players feel like they're soldiers fighting a battle. You play with a headset, headphones, a controller in each hand. And everything about it is hyper-realistic.
AMES: Yeah, it's much more realistic than anything else. It adds a whole new layer.
HERSHER: Ames is 17. He feels totally at home with virtual reality technology. He can't even remember a time when he didn't use computers. Armed with his love of VR and some actual coding skills from high school classes, Ames landed an internship over the summer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. And the guy who hired him is a NASA engineer named Thomas Grubb. Grubb used to play video games as a teenager back in the '80s. But there's just no time for that anymore. And he was really just looking for basic cheap labor to help out on some virtual reality projects.
THOMAS GRUBB: I went into this with, like, OK, I'll take a couple interns or whatever.
HERSHER: He thought he'd get a college student to help out with debugging and stuff. But when he posted the job...
GRUBB: I got all these amazing students coming back. And I was like, I want more than this. I ended up with five.
HERSHER: And they were super valuable because they understand what works and what doesn't in the virtual world. NASA has some pretty big ambitions for what it wants to do with VR - repair technicians in VR headsets on Earth fixing orbiting satellites in real time, scientists exploring remote locations from their offices. Like the inside of an ancient volcano - that's the program that I tried.
GRUBB: All right, so let's put - and it should fit snugly without being too tight.
HERSHER: I'm a little nervous about it honestly.
GRUBB: I think you'll be OK. But there is definitely some older...
HERSHER: Now, I'm 28. I'm not a technological dinosaur - at least not yet.
Here we go.
But honestly, I found the virtual lava tube highly alarming. At first, I felt like I couldn't move at all.
No, no, no. Wow.
Then when I finally did, I was just bumbling around in this virtual cave.
Here we are inside - rocks of the lava tube, the sky above.
The real cave is in Idaho. The virtual gray rocks look pixilated, but you still get dizzy looking up. The lava tube is really tall. I can kneel down and virtually measure boulders - at least theoretically, if I can get my body to move right.
This is a little weird.
How do gamers do it? When I asked Jackson Ames about it, he can barely cover up his impatience.
AMES: Well, it's just - I think that it's the future because we've been stuck with using 2-D screens for 30 years (laughter) or something like that.
HERSHER: And Grubb agrees. He thinks even if the technology has a learning curve, VR can definitely be helpful for research.
GRUBB: You know, it's cheaper to have people go to a lava tube in VR than to actually fly them out there for two weeks and everything else. All of these things can save a lot of money or time - or just enable new things.
HERSHER: In a few years, he hopes even the most seasoned NASA scientists will be strapping on virtual reality headsets at work.
Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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