We are sending humans to Mars. NASA plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to get to Mars in the 2030s; the journey could take between six months to a year and a half. So Dr. Jacki Ford Morie, a VR pioneer who has been working in the field since 1989, has been drafted in to keep our spacemen and women connected to their loved ones and the ground crew, as well as ensure they stay entertained and mentally robust while they hurtle towards another planet.
Dr. Ford Morie is an artist and scientist who is working with NASA's Human Behaviour Performance Unit and SIFT (Smart Information Flow Technologies) to build VR experiences for astronauts. She was talking on stage with cyber psychologist Professor Mary Aiken at Web Summit 2015, in Dublin, about her current work and this new (and hopefully lasting) dawn for VR.
Prototyping virtual hangout spots
Six NASA scientists, who have agreed to live in isolation in a 1,000 sq ft Mars habitat in Hawaii for a year, are Ford Morie and SIFT's current guinea pigs. They are using the prototype virtual world software, ANSIBLE, to stay in touch with friends and family will be compared to a control group who lived in isolation for eight months with more traditional methods such as email.
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"They are the first group to go into this isolation study with this virtual world ecosystem," she said. "We will definitely put the results in a paper or two or three and Nasa is going to be very interested in it too.
"They realised that the length of time the astronauts will be isolated in the spaceship may actually cause some psychological problems. This division of Nasa looks at how they can mitigate those problems so that when it's really time for the astronauts to go to Mars, they have a handle on how to keep them healthy."
So what have Ford Morie and SIFT designed? From the video, stills and descriptions, the prototype looks not too dissimilar from the demos and betas of social VR experiences we are starting to see trickle through from Oculus, Samsung, AltSpace VR and Linden Labs.
It is a CG world populated with AI agents and avatars with the ability to leave messages, take part in virtual activities and socialise. The catch with the NASA project, though, is that astronauts in space and participants on Earth won't be able to interact in real time.
"The center of the virtual world ecosystem is what we call the family communications center," said Dr. Ford Morie. "It has lots of areas where we can put things - a post office for messages, a club where they can watch videos, listen to comedians. It has a library, a weather room so they can see what the weather is like back on Earth, an art gallery, we can show shows there.
"There are also AI agents to help them figure out what's new and what to go to. And we have given them each an avatar that represents them in this space. Now, they'll never be in the same time as friends and family. So their friends and family log on say, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. And the crew on the spacecraft would log on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Then every night in the wee hours of the morning, we synchronise the two servers so that the other side can see what their counterparts have been doing."
Although the interactions are not in real time, there is plenty of opportunity for personal moments to keep astronauts happy and healthy.
"They get to see things, they get to build things for each other. They can even record their avatars doing something, say singing Happy Birthday. Then when the other side logs back on, they can play that back. They could have six avatars singing them happy birthday."
See VR through bionic eyes
The likes of Palmer Luckey take it for granted that head mounted displays like Oculus Rift are a safe bet for the near future of VR. But Dr. Ford Morie sees this as a transition period to other forms of wearable tech (and beyond) that can blend virtual experiences with our physical experiences.
"If a child starts putting on head mounted displays and puts them on for ten years, we don't know how that will affect their eyesight or development. All those things need to be looked at - how the technology itself, which is still pretty clunky, affects our physiology," she said.
"We are going to move on to other types of devices, that will bring VR to our physical self and that will go far beyond having a physical head mounted display on. Maybe that's bionic eyes or contact lenses or something that you wear, there will be other ways we are going to be able to access virtual reality. But right now we're in this transition period."
Professor Aiken agreed, arguing that it is up to experts in behavioural sciences to advise VR tech companies on the potential downsides of the technologies rather than wait for long term studies. "The thought of children being psychologically immersed but also physically encapsulated in a helmet, I would be very concerned about that from a developmental perspective."
Still, Dr. Ford Morie's work is working on fully immersing users in meaningful worlds, not catching them in an uncanny valley where something isn't quite right. That includes research into digitising smells and even, the atmosphere of a room or place.
"There are intangible things out there in the world that we don't know how to digitise yet," she explained, "the atmosphere of a place, the frequencies, the things that make it special or sacred. As we are going to be living in these digital spaces, I want them to have an essence of humanity in that deep spiritual sense that we should be able to put in them, if we just do our homework."
Are we there yet?
For astronauts on a journey to an asteroid or Mars, though, the benefits of wearing a VR device will outweigh any potential problems. Just as the developmental effects of wearing displays remain unknown, so too will the effects of spending long periods of time in a small group. At least until the results of the Mars habitat study in Hawaii can be analysed.
"The astronauts will have their other crew members but that will be the only social interaction they will have. We'd like to make ways for them to have more immediate and more meaningful communication than email with their friends and family back home."
"The sensory monotony is going to be pretty extreme," Dr. Ford Morie continued. "In the Space Station, right now, they have the beautiful Cupola and they can look down on Earth and take photographs of it. But they won't have that going to Mars. We have to give them other environments so that they don't feel like they're stuck in that one place for the months on end it will take them to get to Mars."
The hi-res stills from the Curiosity Rover, available to view on a Gear VR, might be a good place to start. Then again, maybe the rule that says you can't listen to a band before you go to a gig applies to space travel.