Imagine sitting at your desk, donning a virtual reality headset and then walking around on the surface of Mars, studying rocks and turning up new discoveries while sitting in your office chair. Though this may sound like science fiction, if a new partnership between NASA and Microsoft bears fruit, the first humans on Mars may not need to leave Earth.
Although a fully-immersive experience may be some time off, the "OnSight" project is currently being developed by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to allow scientists to carry out science operations along side NASA's Mars rover Curiosity.
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"OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices," said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover."
Currently, mission planners use Curiosity's imagery to gain a sense as to the environment surrounding the six-wheeled robot. However, our brains are more accustomed to studying 3-D objects, not photographs on a 2-D screen. So, by layering real data from the Martian surface over a 3-D computer rendering of the surrounding landscape, it is hoped better science and planning can be carried out here on Earth.
"We believe OnSight will enhance the ways in which we explore Mars and share that journey of exploration with the world," said Jeff Norris, JPL's OnSight project manager.
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By teaming up with Microsoft, NASA hopes to use the company's HoloLens device that will surround the scientists' field of view with a rendering of Curiosity's work site. The technology creates a holographic overlay onto the user's surroundings, making the experience an augmented reality. While immersed in this augmented world, the researchers will be able to study features of interest from different angles, creating a more natural way to interact with Mars data.
"Previously, our Mars explorers have been stuck on one side of a computer screen. This tool gives them the ability to explore the rover's surroundings much as an Earth geologist would do field work here on our planet," said Norris.
In 2009, I pondered the ramifications for virtual reality in ‘manned' exploration of the solar system. If the data is thorough enough, and if the visualization/feedback technology is sufficiently sophisticated, perhaps we really are at the dawn of exploring a high-fidelity virtual Mars.
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This OnSight project will put human explorers on an augmented reality Mars; though rudimentary, it's not a huge leap of the imagination to think that, in the not-so-distant future, exploring Mars could be a fully-immersive experience.
And that creates an interesting, if troublesome, question: If we can explore other worlds without leaving our offices, why send humans to Mars (and beyond) at all? One could imagine the first bootprint on Mars will be created by a NASA researcher, but ‘Mars' will be a simulation and the researcher wouldn't have to leave their desk. If the data collected, and the computer simulation is so detailed, would it even matter if the researcher isn't physically on Mars?
Personally, I want to see humans on Mars as I see our species as an interplanetary race; you cannot replace direct human experience with virtual reality. But it's hard not to ponder whether the future of augmented and virtual reality may remove some of the impetus of blasting humans to Mars when it would make just as much scientific sense to send advanced robotics to collect the data so the discoveries "on Mars" can be made here on Earth.