The NASA Playground That Takes Virtual Reality To a Whole New LevelBrent Rose6/16/15 11:00amFiled to: space campvirtual realitynasarobotsspaceastronautsvr labcharlotteroboticsscience149EditPromoteShare to KinjaToggle Conversation toolsGo to permalinkWe’ve seen how NASA recreates the vacuum of space right here on Earth, but what about the gravity of space? What about the forces of inertia? When large objects move and behave so differently, how to you train for a mission so you know what to expect when you get there? Like this.AdvertisementWe visited the lab where NASA creates incredibly intricate virtual worlds, then blends them with real life and robots in the most advanced virtual reality we’ve ever seen. Virtual reality that puts Oculus to shame. A freakin’ robot that simulates the physics of space. And yes, a jetpack.Gizmodo’s Space Camp is all about the under-explored side of NASA. From robotics to medicine to deep-space telescopes to art. All this week we’ll be coming at you direct from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, shedding a light on this amazing world. You can follow the whole series here.AdvertisementNASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, is home to the agency’s Virtual Reality Lab, which is arguably the most high-tech training the astronauts will receive on Earth. In it, they will encounter DOUG. DOUG is not a person; it’s an acronym for Dynamic Onboard Ubiquitous Graphics program. It’s an impeccably detailed rendering program that models everything on the space station, from the decals to the fluid lines and electrical lines. According to James Tinch, NASA VR Lab manager, “Anything that the crew might see outside on the Space Station we model in here so that when they go outside they feel like they’ve already been there, because they’ve experienced it here in the virtual world.”Inside the VR headsets, crew members get a 3D virtual representation of the ISS. The VR Lab staff can put them anywhere on the ISS, regardless of whether it’s on the U.S., Russian, Japanese, or European segments. That means that if they’re working on a pump unit, they’ll get a real perspective on what their workspace will look and feel like. If they’ll be working while riding on the end of the station’s robot arm, they can experience that (virtually) as well. SponsoredThis gives them a chance to see if the worksite can accommodate their needs, to experience realistic viewing angles from within their spacesuit, to see whether they’re in the right place on the ISS to replace the part that needs to be fixed, to see if the hand tool they’re using will work as intended. The mission will be adjusted and rewritten, and tools and components will often be rebuilt, based on what they learn in the virtual environment.Making space on EarthWhen you’re suited up in the VR rig you are outfitted with a pair of sensor-packed gloves. This setup enables you to track your own hand movement and see them in your virtual world. The gloves also have force sensors in the palms, so you can close your hands to grasp an object (a tool, for instance, or a handrail), and your virtual hands will close around it. It isn’t articulated at an individual finger level, but the open/close positions seem to be detailed enough for these simulations. There’s also a boxy rig worn on your chest that tracks your rotational movement, so when you twist it actually moves your body in the virtual world. Image credit: NASAAdvertisementWhy all the trouble to recreate these worlds virtually? The Earth’s gravity makes it impossible to accurately simulate some space tasks with physical hardware. The next-best option for astronauts to simulate work conditions in space is NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which is underwater in a gigantic pool at the JSC. There they’ll have the hardware version of some specific components, but it’s not in a space station environment—the ISS is just far too big. They might have one small piece of the ship mocked up on one side of the pool, and then they’ll have to move over to another piece somewhere else in the pool. It’s better than nothing, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of the real ISS layout. Virtual reality, by contrast, gives you a full view of everything you’ll experience in the real environment, and all the pieces are in the same spatial relationship that they’re actually in on the station. Then, of course, there’s the helmet. It may not be a looker, but it’s definitely high-functioning. It gives users a 720p display, along with the full head-tracking functionality you’d expect. During my time in the helmet I didn’t notice any lag at all, which is the number one thing that ruins a virtual reality experience. AdvertisementI asked Dr. Tinch if the system was based on the Oculus Rift. He said that at the time of development the Oculus didn’t have the resolution that they required, and so one of the VR Lab’s engineers built the current helmet in his garage. They did say, though, that they are keeping an eye on how commercial VR hardware evolves, and they may swap one in as they progress. A magnetic system handles motion tracking for the head, chest, and hands. The sensor is mounted to the ceiling above the user, and can perceive where different, specific points are at any given time relative to a specified central point. It seemed very smooth in the few minutes that I used it. It didn’t suffer from any dead spots where your hands would suddenly disappear, which I’ve seen happen with some LED light based tracking systems, like the NAVY’s Blue Shark.