Designers team via virtual reality net

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is developing a proto-type network that will allow NASA designers and scientists scattered nationwide to collaborate in real time on spacecraft designs that will be used for future missions to Mars and other planets.

The Integrated Spacecraft Design Environment (ISDE) is a virtual reality network that will allow JPL scientists to exchange ideas and information with scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffet Field Calif. Langley Research Center Hampton Va. and Johnson Space Center Houston.

Virtual reality technology now frequently used in private-sector aerospace engineering makes it possible to translate complex spacecraft designs into 3-D simulations.

Using Continuum a virtual reality software product from Muse Technologies Inc. scientists designing specialized aircraft will be able to substitute mission and spacecraft components in "what if" scenarios that allow the team to "virtually fly" missions before building any costly hardware.

But more important as part of ISDE Continuum will be fielded in a networked environment making it possible for NASA scientists to plunge into each others' virtual reality applications.

"It gives people the ability to literally work in parallel on the same problem " said Creve Maples president and chief technical officer at Muse Technologies and the former head of Sandia National Laboratories' synthetic-environment laboratory.

"That's a radically new capability " he said. "Individuals with different expertise using their own tools will be able to work collaboratively in network-based shared environments in ways never before possible. What we are after is giant leaps of productivity and creativity of people."

ISDE will allow team members in different centers to explore the personalized virtual environments and virtually "jump" from one research lab to another to compare and discuss the designs Maples said.

Researchers can use Continuum to create personal and private networks in which they can work freely with their own data and tools. Users can share an environment even if one user is using a conventional flat-screen monitor and mouse configuration. "What Continuum does is in any shared space it permits every user a private space in a security sense " Maples said. "No hacker can get in your space."

The software allows researchers to view a virtual-design session on a flat screen with the aid of a special module that attaches to the screen or to use a microscope-like device attached to a computer screen to take part in a more detailed virtual reality experience. The latter called complete immersion includes sound and visual effects including sensory details such as peripheral vision. It is designed to create an interactive situation that the user perceives as real.

Immersion would allow a designer to create several simultaneous real-time scenarios that Maples described as "parallel universes." For example designers at different locations who are designing a spacecraft can virtually "jump" from one researcher's location to another to observe progress or to offer an opinion. Researchers also could "jump" backward to the beginning phases of the design or "jump" forward to a simulation of a later phase in order to hone in on one specific aspect of the design Maples said.

John Peterson manager of integrated design systems at JPL said the ISDE is part of a strategy to allow scientists to do more collaborative spacecraft design work earlier in the spacecraft development process. As much as 50 percent of design errors are introduced in the early phases of spacecraft design and the network allows scientists to scour a "virtual product" to try to eliminate the errors he said.

"You can test validate and fly this thing pretty early " Peterson said. "We need to get past just the videoconferencing shareware stuff you can do today and move toward a more interactive approach. We can go through a design space and hone in on a specific design area of interest from a learning perspective. Because this is experimental we wanted to get as cost-effective a solution as possible but one that could grow with technology."

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