AUSTIN, Texas—South By Southwest Interactive is currently in full swing, and in addition to hundreds of panel discussions, the festival includes a massive show floor full of attention-hungry startups. The floor is covered in a hodgepodge of startup-style nonsense, and it ranged from intriguing (custom earbuds) to clumsy (a 3D food printer that went down due to Windows PC crashes) to creepy (an app-controlled plastic mask meant to be worn at night for fair skin) to downright awful (a wobbly surfboard-like rig meant for standing desks that almost immediately had us falling off).
Basically, this isn’t a scene you’d expect established, beloved companies to be in – you’re more likely to find your Samsungs and Googles throwing parties or hosting special venues in downtown Austin – making the startup convention space seem like an exception to that rule the more curious: NASA.
NASA’s SXSWi presence was a bit like a carnival set-up, with a foam board billboard advertising real astronauts stopping by to speak, some giant models of NASA spacesuits and rockets, and some scaffolding signs about Mars and Mars aspirations. steps towards innovation. Most interesting to us was a single, nondescript cabinet at the edge of the staging, which held a pair of HTC Vive headsets.
Virtual reality has been a staple of NASA’s training regimen for years, thanks to huge, expensive installations at their facilities, but the team at the Hybrid Reality and Advanced Operational Concepts Lab was on hand to confirm that VR for consumers like the Vive is now figuring out how it works – and they had already built two great demos to prove it.
“Holy $#*%, I’m in the ISS!”
NASA engineer Matthew Noyes walked me through the company’s Vive demos, which he confirmed were built in 3D using the Unreal Engine. After putting on the HTC Vive headset and grabbing a Vive wall controller, I was first transported to a facsimile of the International Space Station. Obviously this wasn’t a one-to-one recreation, in terms of the bulky gear you’d find aboard the functioning, orbiting satellite, but the basic layout was intact and included things like a grounded space suit and a few computer terminals.
As in other recent Vive demos we’ve played, the ISS simulator (which has no official name) features a mix of free-walking and “teleporting”, allowing users to move from room to room once they run out of real-world walking space. . Everything from grabbing objects to moving between rooms was mapped in weird ways to the buttons on the Vive wand, but once I got over that mental block I could pick up objects, throw them around, and things like a flashlight and manipulate a drilling machine.
The current implementation of the ISS simulator offers a single “training” module, which Noyes admitted needs some polishing, but I was able to crack open a tool box, grab some screws, drive them into holes in putting up a wall and drilling them into it to secure some ISS hardware. (“That’s a Team Fortress 2 toolbox,” Noyes admitted.) The demonstration was meant to show how careful astronauts should be with things like small screws when performing maintenance, but this current version was more of a consumer-oriented demo of the astronaut experience than a realistic training exercise.
Still, Noyes insisted that NASA astronauts who grabbed and threw things into the demo’s super-basic zero-gravity physics engine say it replicates what it’s really like to tap things into the ISS and watch them float away. . This experience felt intense in the demo when Noyes asked me to walk up to a wall in the virtual world, where he had placed real metal rails. I held the rail with one hand and then started holding while touching zero-gravity objects with the Vive controller. This is when the 12-year-old boy in me unexpectedly popped out and exclaimed, “Holy shit, I’m in the ISS!”
From real moon data to super robots with motion tracking
The other demo seemed equally suited to play with Vive and Oculus, as you had to sit in a cushioned chair with the headset on, but in NASA’s case it needed actual throttle-style hardware for more immersion. Once I was in the seat and wearing a Vive, I found myself in a lunar rover parked right next to a frozen recreation of the original lunar landing, complete with Buzz Aldrin disembarking from Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong videotaping.
I could accelerate, reverse, and steer with the throttle, and NASA was kind enough to drop giant, green balls onto the lunar surface to provide a suggested driving path around nearby craters and hills. “Astronauts say when you’re on the moon it’s easy to lose track of where you are and want to see what’s beyond the next hill,” said NASA software developer Aly Shehata, and that feeling filled my whole being then I started racing across the moon. “This is all completely accurate mapped data straight from NASA,” Shehata told me; not like I could somehow confirm it, but I mean, why would NASA’s design team fake it?
Despite my many months of Vive testing, Shehata was still able to surprise me with one facet of the hardware. After I had sailed along the lunar surface for a minute, he encouraged me to look up, straight up, at the rest of the black universe above my head. “The stars appear as soon as your eyes adjust,” he said, and sure enough, the blooming effect played out. Total darkness turned into a wealth of stars, which Shehata says is similar to what astronauts on the moon experience when they look up from the bright, sun- and Earth-lit surface.
Just typing about that facet of the demo almost brings me to tears. I can hardly bear the thought that today I was closer to space than I have ever been in my life. Even with issues like a missing real-time shadow/lighting system and some nausea from driving up and down virtual hills, I was absolutely blown away by the experience – and the same can be said for the ISS Simulator, whose texture quality pits it used to be. and whose simulation could have used more ISS-specific hardware in it.
After completing both demos, I wondered if we could buy them as final products for home VR kits like this month’s Oculus Rift and next month’s HTC Vive. NASA said they were “working” on a public release – playing around with an ISS sim feature that would allow VR users to see real astronauts in the station. However, no launch plans, much less release dates, have been confirmed.
As for the future of consumer VR within NASA, Noyes and project manager Frank Delgado said it was of interest to their research team, both as an outreach product – something to amaze Vive and Oculus owners – and a new astronaut training tool. NASA had put astronauts in similarly functioning VR kits more than a decade ago, he said, but the simplicity of the Vive system’s tracking stations could allow him to do even more cool stuff with just a little ingenuity.
Specifically, Noyes said, NASA’s training centers place future astronauts in giant robots, which simulate some of the hardware work they have to do in space and even respond to zero-gravity situations. “If we could daisy-chain some of these dumb sensors,” Noyes said, pointing to the Vive’s tracking stations, “and equipped our robots [with sensing nodules] to send their own location data across a crowded, giant room, imagine what we could do. these stations don’t really do that much,” meaning the team could get something done.
Of course, we’ll have to wait and see what the Hybrid Reality and Advanced Operational Concepts Lab can pull off with a mix of their expensive, in-house installations and hacked-together consumer products, but NASA was at SXSW for another reason: to educate more people. find to help. “We’re hiring,” another NASA representative told me as I walked away with misty eyes — and I almost asked for a form to fill out.
This article has been updated with name corrections requested by NASA. We regret the mistake.
Frame image by Sam Machkovech