Virtual Reality Mars Visualization
I worked on a virtual reality simulation of the Martian surface at the International Space Apps Challenge, using the Oculus Rift. Before attending the Challenge, I had no experience working with the Oculus head-mounted display, which I found quickly offers a great deal of immersion by coupling stereoscopic vision with precise head-tracking.
The first iteration of the simulation was completed in less than 48 hours at the hackathon and won “Most Inspirational” at the Space Apps Challenge, and was later presented at the Hall of Science in Queens, NY, and at MakerFaire. The project explored ways in which new immersive technologies can be utilized in the service of science education, by making already existing technical and visual imagery more accessible. Applications such as this can democratize the experience of space exploration while serving as a new form of immersive education.
The environment was designed in Blender using NASA satellite imagery of the Gale Crater, as well as elevation data, to produce a topographic map of the area that the user can look down on and examine as they would a map on a tabletop. Adjacent to the 3-dimensional map of the crater is a model of the Curiosity rover, rendered to scale.
The Rift's immersion can also be used to allow people to visualize and experience concepts that are unintuitive or otherwise difficult to express on a two-dimensional screen. For example, a virtual simulation could visualize gravimetric distortions, visible, infrared, and x-ray light sources, and even ideas like gravitational lensing to allow a full-picture of the area around a stellar object, in four dimensions. A user could manipulate this visualization to turn on and off different layers of data, or zoom in and out of layers of interest. A mock-up showing accretion disk's gravity well shows what such a simulation might look like.
Below, Astronaut Ron Garan demoes the Mars simulation at the 2013 International Space Apps Challenge in New York City.