MIT, Fusion, and NASA are working in partnership with a virtual reality experience that will place the users on Mars long before the real astronauts reach the Red Planet in the 2030s.
Though NASA is not planning on sending astronauts to Mars up to 2030s, anyone owning a virtual reality headset will be in a position to walk on the Red Planet come next year.
The Mars 2030 Experience, a collaboration crosswise NASA, MIT and Fusion’s Space System Laboratory, will debut in March 2016 at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.
The free virtual reality experience will be compatible with the Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift of Facebook as well as Samsung Gear VR. Versions of the experience are as well set to launch on PlayStation VR and HTC Vive in the future.
Jason Crusan, the director of advanced exploration systems at NASA, says that the space agency already uses virtual reality tech in the training of astronaut as well as spacecraft simulations, so it was only logical to expand that successful model to inspire and also educate the next generation of space explorers and scientists.
Crusan says, “We saw this as an opportunity to share elements of our human Mars surface exploration concepts using today’s advanced virtual reality technologies.”
Justin Sonnekalb is a technical designer working at Irrational Games and works on this project too, says that the gameplay experience will let the users walk or even drive the Mars Rover prototype across some square miles of actual Martian terrain as they peruse research-oriented mission goals. More details about the experience will be publicized during the SXSW panel, which will be exploring the intersection of education, science and technology.
One of the things that have been exposed is that this virtual reality version of Mars will be different from Hollywood interpretations. Sonnekalb says that when people play The Mars 2030 Experience, they will be able to see the best efforts of the team to re-create what it would look like if someone were indeed standing on Mars today.
Sonnekalb says, “We’ve been taking enormous care to provide the most realistic Martian environment possible, using real topographic data and accurate color reference. Most images from Mars are either raw data that hasn’t been color-corrected to match human eyesight, or has been tuned to reflect Earth’s lighting conditions because it both affords greater visual contrast and appears more natural. There’s something inherently cool about the authenticity of that, particularly with the additional immersion afforded by VR.”
The team uses Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 tech, which is used in the upcoming games like Capcom’s Street Fighter V and Chair Entertainment’s Spyjinx, to re-create Mars’ entirely alien atmosphere. The planet’s sky is a reddish-butterscotch hue at noon, but blue around sunset.
As part of the development process, Sonnekalb’s team visited the Johnson Space Center to talk shop with simulator team of NASA and get a test drive on the Mars Rover prototype alongside an astronaut.
Crusan said, “Beyond practical uses for training, virtual reality offers us a compelling method to share the work we’ve been doing to design sustainable human missions and to inspire the next generation of pioneers in space.”