Virtual reality tech suffered a blow last month when an experimental Microsoft headset going up to the International Space Station got caught in an explosion. But as the accident investigation continues, virtual digital technologies are gradually taking a hold in space exploration.
Headlining these efforts was supposed to be the HoloLens, a headset made by Microsoft that in part would allow ground controllers to look over the shoulders of astronauts. However, the Falcon 9 rocket carrying up a Dragon spacecraft exploded June 29; the cause is still being investigated. While there's no date yet on when astronauts will use it in space, it will be used underwater very shortly.
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Every year or so, NASA runs simulated space missions underwater called NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations). In the two missions that occurred in 2014, astronauts tested out Google Glass to see if that was an easier way to implement procedures. The thinking was that by letting controllers "see" what the astronauts were doing, it would speed up the work.
In a technical report after the mission, however, the Google Glass was not found to be ideal. It was limited by battery life and had some issues with scrolling, among other things. After this happened and for unrelated reasons, the Glass project was shelved by Google. NASA's next move is to see how Microsoft's HoloLens will do.
On July 21, NASA will test HoloLens and its software counterpart (Sidekick) on the NEEMO 20 mission. Instead of the traditional written procedures and uploaded videos, the controller will be able to give guidance and even "draw annotations" in front of the crew member's eyes, according to a NASA press release.
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Time delays, however, would be a problem for astronauts working on Mars. How to have the procedures drop at at time when is convenient for the crew member, as opposed to running on the communications loop on top of what other people are saying? While that's a bit far off for humans, Microsoft is working on a modified version of its virtual reality set for the Curiosity mission.
The powerful rover is good at taking pictures, but sometimes it's hard to judge distances and road hazards without familiar Earthly landmarks. The OnSight virtual reality environment is supposed to integrate Curiosity's data into a headset, making it easier for controllers to tromp around before telling the rover where to go. The information is naturally dated, but as Curiosity sits still for long periods of time between moving, it should be fine.