News From Space: Walk on Mars with VR

oculus-rift-omni-treadmill-mars-nasa-640x353Virtual Reality, which was once the stuff of a cyberpunk wet dream, has grown somewhat stagnant in recent years. Large, bulky headsets, heavy cables, and graphics which were low definition and two-dimensional just didn’t seem to capture the essence of the concept. However, thanks to the Oculus Rift, the technology known as Virtual Reality has been getting a new lease on life.

Though it is still in the development phase, the makers of the Oculus Rift has mounted some impressive demos. Though still somewhat limited – using it with a mouse is counter-intuitive, and using it with a keyboard prevents using your body to scan virtual environments –  the potential is certainly there and the only question at this point is how to expand on it and give users the ability to do more.

Oculus-RiftOne group that is determined to explore its uses is NASA, who used it in combination  with an Omni treadmill to simulate walking on Mars. Already, the combination of these two technologies has allowed gamers to do some pretty impressive things, like pretend they are in an immersive environment, move, and interact with it (mainly shooting and blowing things up), which is what VR is meant to allow.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, however, went a step beyond this by combining the Omni and a stereoscopic 360-degree panorama of Mars to create a walking-on-Mars simulator. The NASA JPL team was able to give depth to the image so users could walk around an image of the Martian landscape. This is perhaps the closest normal folks will ever get to walking around on a “real” alien planet.

omni_treadmillAlong with the Martian terrain, JPL created a demo wherein the user could wander around the International Space Station. The JPL team also found that for all the sophisticated imagery beamed back to Earth, it is no substitute for being immersed in an environment. Using a rig similar to the Rift and Omni could help researchers better orient themselves with alien terrain, thus being able to better plan missions and experiments.

Looking to the long run, this kind of technology could be a means for creating “telexploration” (or Immersive Space Exploration) – a process where astronauts would be able to explore alien environments by connecting to rover’s or satellites camera feed and controlling their movements. In a way that is similar to teleconferencing, people would be able to conduct true research on an alien environment while feeling like they were actually in there.

mars-180-degrees-panorama_croppedAlready, scientists at the Mars Science Laboratory have been doing just that with Curiosity and Opportunity, but the potential to bring this immersive experience to others is something many NASA and other space scientists want to see in the near future. What’s more, it is a cheap alternative to actually sending manned mission to other planets and star systems.

By simply beaming images back and allowing users to remotely control the robotic platform that is sending them, the best of both worlds can be had at a fraction of the cost. Whats more, it will allow people other than astronauts to witness and feel involved in the process of exploration, something that social media and live broadcasts from space is already allowing.

As usual, it seems that the age of open and democratic space travel is on its way, my friends. And as usual, there’s a video clip of the Oculus Rift and the Omni treadmill bringing a walk on Mars to life. Check it out:


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