How VR is being used to simulate space

Only a very minute number of people have had the privilege of venturing into outer space, maybe that’s partly why space draws a fascination and inquisition with humans.

VR is been experimented with in many different sectors, such as practising minimally invasive surgeries using smartphones or tablets, entertainment, advertising, and more interestingly for creative professionals  creating art in 360 using tools such as Google’s Tilt Brush and Story Studio’s Quill. But VR and space is a partnership at experimental stages that excites many sectors.

Space is beyond the world as we know it, it’s more unknown than known, it’s uncontrollable yet it dictates our very existence. For years humans have researched space, but the actual experience and knowledge of space has been left to astronauts and scientists - and not the wider public.

That has begun to change with the rise of virtual reality. NASA is already experimenting with how the Oculus Rift could be used to manoeuvre robots in space. The US space agency is working with the Unreal Engine real-time visualisation platform to help it create a real mixed reality replica of the International Space Station that provides an ‘out of this world’ environment for its astronauts and engineers (as explained in the video below).

The SpaceVR project aims to send the world’s first VR satellite into space. Last year we saw Rewind’s innovative Spacewalk in conjunction with the BBC, and this year we’ve already seen two VR space projects - Cycling Pathways to Mars and as of today, the launch of Space Descent at London’s Science Museum.

Visitors to the Science Museum can experience a VR descent from the International Space Station back to earth with the help of Tim Peake. We went along to the media preview last week, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to look back on some recent VR experiences set in space.

Alchemy VR: Space Descent for the Science Museum

The Science Museum dips into it’s first educational 360-degree VR project with a 12-minute space experience with Tim Peake opening today using Samsung's Gear VR headsets.

Created by Alchemy VR, Space Descent puts users inside the descent module of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as it takes the 400km journey back to earth from the International Space Station. British astronaut Tim Peake explains the process of descent.

Users take on the body of an astronaut sitting in the module, looking on at a board of controls with windows on either side.  When the module is on fire do not to worry, as Tim says, this is meant to happen. The module slows from a speed in orbit of 25,000km ever hour to land safely - but with a few bumps along the way - in Kazakhstan.

To build the experience, the Alchemy team consulted leading experts and employed the rendering power of 100 computers for an entire month.

The experience launched less than two months after Tim Peake visited the Science Museum to unveil the spacecraft itself, the Soyuz TMA 19M, and a parachute which returned him to earth from his Principe mission in June last year.

Science Museum group director Ian Blatchford says the museum looks to “revolutionise” how its visitors experience and learn about science, and to improve the way they engage with the museum’s collection of objects. He wants Space Descent VR to “excite and inspire people”.

Although there seemed to be a lot of hype at the media preview last week, it was hard to suppress feelings of disappointment with the overall immersive experience. Listening to Tim Peake through low-volume headphones whilst hearing everyone else around you was distracting, and took the focus away from the highly-rendered visuals.

Having Tim Peake there was a potentially exciting element, but after talking up his appearance it only amounts to a talking head on a screen in front you, so in that sense, it’s not capturing the essence of what VR can offer. The experience is designed to be educational, so it’s necessary for Tim to talk the user through the descent process, but this also seemed distracting and too forced, taking away from what is meant to be an exciting solo adventure. Maybe the visuals could have been left a little more to explain themselves.

The company behind the experience, Alchemy VR, creates story-telling and technical work of Atlantic Productions. In the past they’ve created David Attenborough’s First Life VR and Great Barrier Reef Dive VR projects, which can be played on Play Station.

Space Descent VR is open to the public for £7, staring March 24. Booking online is recommended.

Life VR: Cycling Pathways to Mars for Steam and HTC Viveport

The second man to walk the moon, Buzz Aldrin, has partnered with 8i and Life VR to create the VR experience - Cycling Pathways to Mars - to explain how a permanent human settlement can exist on Mars.

The 10-minute film was launched at South by Southwest in Austin this month, and it’s now available on Steam and HTC Vive’s Viveport store (where you can check out a ‘Making Of’ video) , and is expected to be on the Oculus Rift soon.

Whilst in the VR experience, users can ride in the cycler than Aldrin has designed to transport humans to Mars. 8i also created a 3D hologram of Aldrin by recording him using volumetric capture.

Where Space Descent users are confined to sitting down, Cycling Pathways to Mars lets you walk around as if Aldrin is in the room with you.

Aldrin has created a plan that could feasibly get the US to Mars within 20 years. You can check it out here.

Original reporting by Caitlin McGarry from our sister site Macworld (US).

Rewind: Home - A VR Spacewalk for the BBC

Let’s not forget the fantastic spacewalk VR experience created by Rewind for the BBC in July last year.

Users can perform a spacewalk on the International Space Station in a 15-minute experience - making it the longest space experience out of the three mentioned here. Users are put into the suit of an astronaut 250 miles above earth, and given the task to check damage to an external part of the station using their arms.

The unique element of this space experience is how the user experiences no gravity - something pretty hard to simulate - but an experience similar to the training simulations used by Tim Peake and other astronauts to prepare for any eventuality in space.

Our colleague Lewis Painter went along to give it a go, and said it feels like you’re floating in space. He says experiencing thunderstorms and the Northern Lights was made more realistic with the use of a rumble chair. There is also a full body biometric system which allows the user to hear and monitor their own heartbeat during the mission.

Home - A VR Spacewalk was created in Unreal Engine 4, inspired by NASA and ESA’s training programmes and the experiences of real astronauts.

It was part of BBC Learning’s mission to inspire future scientists, and further the BBC’s initial experiences with the medium.

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