Astronauts to board virtual reality video game

New toolset will simulate driving on the moon and help NASA answer practical questions for future lunar missions

NASA, known for its stunts in the sky, is now pulling some equally amazing feats on terrestrial flooring to ensure that its space somersaults are safe.

The agency is toying with some new e-learning ventures, notably a twist on gaming that will allow astronauts, scientists and engineers to plan lunar missions.

The new toolset will be an adaptation of a video game that simulates driving on the moon, complete with surround sound, surround vision and lunar footage from the 1998 Clementine mission.

By physically stepping into a virtual rocket environment, engineers and astronauts can better answer questions such as: How many vehicles should NASA fly at once? What should be the base diameter on the payload and on the rocket? How fast can a rover go before it loses traction?

VirtueArts and VirtuePlay, sister companies based in Los Angeles that created the video game, have signed an agreement to collaborate with the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., on real-time simulation training.

Such e-learning would allow astronauts and NASA engineers to steer moon buggies and walk through flying spacecraft in 3-D virtual reality, for example.

The companies will unveil the video game version, “Lunar Racing Championship,” later this month at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Space 2006 Conference and Exposition in San Jose, Calif.

The game is designed to stimulate interest in science and technology among children and teenagers.

During the simulated lunar races, drivers sit in individual racing pods, complete with race car seats, shaking steering wheels, and gas and brake pedals. High-fidelity 360-degree head-mounted displays with head-tracking devices let drivers look in any direction and see the racecourse, other racers and a 3-D lunar terrain.

Each five-minute race takes drivers through various locations on the moon, including Hadley Rille, Alpine Valley, the Amundsen Crater and the Tycho Crater.

“It’s comparable to any high-end racing game that’s out there, but you’re racing in one-sixth gravity with no atmosphere,” said Mary Duda, chief executive officer of software developer VirtueArts and game developer VirtuePlay.

In the next three years, NASA hopes to adapt the game technology to conceptualize options for upcoming exploration missions, said Dan Rasky, a senior staff scientist and director of the NASA Ames Space Portal.

“It’s hard to visualize this in your brain,” Rasky said. “You get to the point where you overwhelm an individual’s ability to visualize the mission planning in his or her own head.” He used to watch his children playing on the computer and say, “We can do this for video games. Why don’t we have a tool like this for $100 billion space missions?”

The answer to that question is easier to answer than Rasky’s other exploration mindbenders. Duda said the problem had been the enormous cost of high-resolution, on-demand simulation software. It took her companies five years to develop a solution. The technology, Rapid Application Development Engine (RADE), lets users quickly create complex interactive projects that developers would have needed a long time to construct. The software application works with laptop PCs and large clusters of computers.

To build a simulation, developers normally would code individual interactive activities, compile that code and then run the program. To create a new simulation, developers would have to scrap the code and rebuild, which typically would take years.

With RADE, NASA engineers can compile interactive, photorealistic, near Pixar-quality scenes in real time on consumer hardware. If they need to, they can alter the simulation in at least half the time.

“We’re visualizing things that scientists are doing with pen and paper.… We’re taking what would otherwise be abstract data and we’re interpreting that into a graphical interface,” Duda said. “We are using true physics and compensating for things you’d have to do on a future rover.” For the proof-of-concept design, the companies, which specialize in nonviolent gaming, created a “Sims”-like game based on the TV show “ER.”

In the future, the companies will work with NASA to inject the look and feel of space travel. They will use a concept called force feedback, which involves embedding sensors in the floor, handles and anything else the user touches to replicate the sensation of moving in one-sixth gravity. Right now, sensors in the steering wheel of the lunar racing video game perform this function.

NASA officials say the virtual reality learning tool will enable astronauts and engineers to collaborate in building the next space shuttle, Orion, and other systems for NASA’s exploration program.

“The astronauts want to get an idea of what the engineers are doing,” Rasky said, adding that the engineers’ designs may be efficient from an operations standpoint, but they might not be feasible from a human standpoint. For example, seating configurations and other environmental factors might not be suitable.

Rasky said RADE could have saved him and his colleagues some grief in the summer of 2005 when they were conceiving the exploration system architecture study. During the study, astronauts made a mock-up of the engineers’ space shuttle designs with cardboard boxes to visualize the look of the interior.

With virtual reality, Rasky said, “you’re right in the video game. With this head-mount display, if you look to the left, the view changes as if you are looking to the left. Any way you look, you are on the moon. What you hear is on the moon.”

With a trace of hyperbole, he added, “The whole idea is to get you to the ‘Star Trek’ hologram.”

The rest of NASA’s workforce will benefit from other new e-learning equipment. As part of the President’s Management Agenda, NASA has launched an online learning management system. The idea is that remote learning and other telework technologies save agencies time and money. In May, NASA and online training firms General Physics and Plateau Systems completed a project to transition existing e-learning materials and new career development capabilities to a consolidated platform, called the System for Administration, Training and Educational Resources for NASA.

SATERN works in much the same way as course management programs, such as Blackboard. NASA officials said the agency will soon be able to deliver certification tracking, performance assessment reviews and individual development planning to more than 60,000 employees worldwide via the Internet.

“NASA doesn’t have an agencywide solution yet for individual development plans,” said Sheila Fogle, NASA’s project manager for the migration from older systems. Within the Plateau software, however, each employee will be able to create a road map for career advancement, she said.

Video game will educate NASA and next-generation scientistsFuture work on virtual reality software will help NASA and its partners at VirtueArts and VirtuePlay in many capacities, such as:

  • Mission planning.

  • Engineering design.

  • Multidisciplinary collaborative design tools.

  • Data visualization.

  • Logistics modeling.

  • Human factors simulation studies.

  • Multimedia outreach and education.
  • Students can also play along:
    VirtueArts and VirtuePlay plan to offer an online adaptation of the lunar-race experience to schools nationwide. The companies will also give students lunar buggy tool-kits to help them build their own moon racers.

    — Aliya Sternstein

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