NASA Launches MarsXR Challenge With $70k in Prizes for Participants

If you love a challenge and just so happen to know a thing or two about developing virtual reality (VR) content then you might want to enter NASA’s latest initiative. This month the space agency began the NASA MarsXR Challenge, looking for developers to help create VR environments for the purpose of research, development, and testing various situations encountered on Mars.

NASA XOSS MarsXR Engine Exploration
Image credit: NASA XOSS MarsXR Engine/Buendea

A collaborative effort between NASA, Buendea, and Epic Games, the challenge is for developers to utilise Unreal Engine 5 (UE5) to build “new assets and scenarios for the new Mars XR Operations Support System (XOSS) environment.” These need to be “immersive, engaging, and realistic experiences” that build upon what the MarsXR Engine already provides; full Martian days, realistic weather conditions and Martian gravity, approximately 154 miles2 of Martian terrain, and certain assets such as suits and rovers.

The assets and scenarios NASA wants developers to make need to be focused on particular extravehicular activities (EVA) scenarios. These are split down into five categories; Set Up Camp, Scientific Research, Maintenance, Exploration, and Blow Our Minds.

NASA has allotted a total prize fund of $70,000 USD for this challenge, which will be split across 20 winners. Categories will have four prizes each, with $6,000 going to the overall category winner. NASA says that: “Teams may submit multiple submissions in each category and submit to multiple categories,” and they “are eligible to and may win more than one award.”  

NASA XOSS MarsXR Engine Exploration
Image credit: NASA XOSS MarsXR Engine/Buendea

Applications are open now until 26th July 2022. After which judging shall commence with the winners announced on 27th September.

NASA has always been very active within the XR space, utilising both VR and augmented reality (AR) for a range of initiatives. Recently, the space agency gave The Smithsonian access to rarely seen imagery to help create VR exhibit “FUTURES x Meta: Moonwalk” as part of the museum’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo moon landings. Or then there’s the collaboration with Felix & Paul Studios on Space Explorers: The ISS Experience.

For further updates on the MASA MArsXR Challenge, keep reading gmw3.

How NASA Astronauts Use VR & AR Aboard The International Space Station

A recent blog post from NASA detailed various ways that VR and AR technology is used aboard the International Space Station and back on Earth to prepare astronauts for take-off.

According to NASA, VR/AR tech is becoming an increasing strong staple in life aboard the ISS, often used to help astronauts complete tasks or activities in new or easier ways. There’s nine examples in the full blog post, alongside some photos showing a few VR and AR headsets you’re probably familiar with.

The most common headset pictured in the blog post is the HoloLens, Microsoft’s enterprise-only AR headset. The HoloLens has been used in projects such as Sidekick, which used high-definition holograms to help show crew members 3D schematics and diagrams while they work. It was also used for T2 AR, a project that will help guide astronauts through maintenance tasks for their space station treadmill, avoiding the need for real-time communication with ground crew back on Earth.

It’s not all AR though — VR is also adopted across the ISS. Some astronauts are pictured using Oculus Quests to test whether adding VR environments might improve astronauts’ exercise bike experience, while others are pictured using Oculus Rift and other headsets for a variety of tasks like operating robotic arms or piloting space vehicles.

The post also mentions The ISS Experience, a multi-episode immersive VR series by Felix & Paul Studios and TIME Studios, filmed over multiple months aboard the ISS. NASA says the series  gives people on Earth insight into life aboard the ISS, along with potentially sparking ideas and inspiration for further research and improved conditions for astronauts. The series won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Interactive Program recently, and the first two out of four planned episodes are available now through the Space Explorers app for Oculus Quest and Rift.

You can read NASA’s full blog post, detailing all the ways they use VR and AR technology aboard the ISS, here. 

New app lets you take a selfie on Mars


NASA’s Perseverance rover drove on Mars for the first time on March 4, 2021. (Image courtesy NASA.)

Signal Theory has built an immersive and interactive app that lets you take a selfie of yourself on Mars and share it on Instagram. Plus, the app lets you explore the red planet through the eyes of the Perseverance Rover.

The app is built using the National Geographic Mars 360 degrees video which uses actual NASA images, and Instagram’s Spark AR platform.

The app can be accessed by searching Mars AR on the Instagram camera’s effect menu or through the link on NASA’s post on Instagram.

Luke Hurd

“Our goal, ultimately, is to have an exciting, immersive experience that feels more than just an AR filter and can help entice more people into learning something about our universe,” said Luke Hurd, Signal Theory’s innovation director.

Although the AR filter is used primarily for on social media, it can also be used for research and education, he told Hypergrid Business.

The app starts in space above Mars. You can tap the screen to fly to the rover’s landing site in the Jezero Crater. You can look around by moving your phone, tap the arm to have the rover work on the ground, and even flip the camera using its button to take a selfie with the rover.

The app helps make space science more accessible to the average person.

“Augmented reality centers on human beings,” said Hurd. “We don’t want to overwhelm the audience with too much information, too much text, or too dry of an experience. You can’t just put an AR experience on any platform and expect it to perform the same. People are on Instagram for a reason, so we are very purposeful in how we create the experiences for that specific audience and how they use that.”

AR’s potential is immense, he added.

“Humans adopt things in very specific, cultural ways and it doesn’t always have to be a functional, utilitarian tool for life to be impactful,” he added. “Sometimes it can be driven by self-expression, art, or completely irreverence just like the little glowing rectangle in your pocket is today. That’s the real future of augmented reality and we are happy to be one of the leaders sitting at the bubbling pool of primordial ooze watching the cellular structures start to form.”

One Of The Largest Productions Ever Filmed In Space Is A VR Experience

Felix & Paul Studios is behind one the largest productions of any type ever filmed in space. And, while the VR version of episode one of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience was recently released, they currently have multiple VR cameras in space capturing content both in and outside of the International Space Station, including the arrival of the first commercial SpaceX crew.

Regardless of your plans for space travel in the near future, this first of four episodes is your opportunity to spend virtual time in microgravity, amid 16 daily sunrises and sunsets, with astronauts Anne McClain, David Saint-Jacques, Christina Koch and Nick Hague. “It’s about humanity’s present and future among the stars” explains Felix & Paul Studios Co-Founder, Félix Lajeunesse. “We’re transporting audiences to space. We’re giving audiences the opportunity to feel like they’re living with the astronauts… with the capacity to watch planet earth from space and get a unique perspective of our world.” That perspective, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacque shares, spans environmental to geo-political issues. “It makes you fall in love with our planet, and makes you want to go beyond our difference and focus on all that we have in common with our fellow humans.”

For me, this first step into Space Explorers: The ISS Experience is both awe-inspiring and an essential reminder for the immersive storytelling industry that there is still a large void on store platforms for experiences that allow us to visit real places and people. This purely real footage made me feel even more connected with our earth, even while I was inside a virtual visit in a space station over 400 kilometers from my living room. Co-Founders Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël discussed their studio’s journey into space with me, along with insights that can inspire other live action cinematic immersive experiences.

Create a VR Master to Reach the Largest Audiences

While Space Explorers: The ISS Experience is filmed in VR, audiences will be able to witness the episode stories on Oculus Quests, Oculus Rifts as well as on mobile via select 5G network providers, big screens, dome screens, planetariums and even a largescale travelling exhibition. The content may vary between some of these platforms, based on what is best for their intended audiences. But they all leverage the same source capture, leading to the original footage being best described as the virtual reality master. And this virtual reality master is high resolution, as the in-space capture resulted in specs equivalent to “about 8K per eye and 30 frames per second” explains Lajeunesse.

Raphaël highlights the benefit of being able to direct for all forms of this content in post-production since the content was captured in VR. This was especially important since there was nobody from the studio that was able to direct alongside the astronauts in space. The astronauts became the whole film crew in space, and creative collaborators, all between their ongoing expedition duties. Saint-Jacque was the first astronaut to take the VR camera out of its box when it arrived in space. “In terms of the setup” he explained “we were provided with very detailed instructions for camera location and hardware [and] software setup. A support team on the ground was able to see a preview of the scene before filming started, and could advise on arrangement and lighting.”

Customize the Best Possible Camera

The largest production ever filmed in space was captured using a customized camera that has helped to make Felix & Paul Studios the only media studio implementation partner of the International Space Station. To get this VR camera to space in time for the production to capture the intended moments in space history, it was not as simple as sending one of the studio’s renowned cameras up. This first episode was captured using a modified Z CAM V1 Pro, developed in collaboration with the Z CAM team and Nanoracks. Object weight and size are just some of the constraints of camera space travel, so the team modifications addressed everything from thermal management to its sizing to get its space certification. Its modification also allowed for an even higher resolution capture, and the studio’s entire production process and software that is used on their in-house cameras was able to be integrated into this modified camera.

This is no longer the only VR camera that Felix & Paul Studios has in space, with production of this series planned to continue through to January 2021. And, from a higher-level standpoint, the next journey for their VR cameras may be deep space exploration. Raphaël said they “are also looking at the moon, and mars.”

Emotional Engagement with Real Experiences

This series is designed to take millions of people to a place that “so few human beings have been able to experience” explains Raphaël.

Lajeunesse notes that “we are trained to experience reality through our senses…but you know if it’s not true. In cinematic virtual reality, with real human beings inside a real environment… maybe you’re not able to start walking around and reaching things. But your mind knows that this is a reality. It creates a different type of emotional engagement.”

This is not to say that that real-looking experiences cannot create emotional engagement. But it may be a different emotional experience when you know for sure that every single detail happened in reality in the moment you are standing in. Visitors truly witness history in that way.

There was a lot of support to create 360 content a few years ago, but the focus has largely shifted to social and interactive experiences and games. “The real world has a place in virtual reality” states Raphaël.

Use Interactivity with Real Footage Wisely

When immersive stories are not entirely real captures, interactivity can help visitors feel physically present in the story. But Raphaël explains, in the case documenting the journey of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, interactivity was not integrated since it is “all about you experiencing something that is real.” The content captured were real moments that happened, and nothing that a virtual visitor could do would change the course of the true narrative. There are no breaks or “lyrical moments” as he described the studio integrated into the award-winning documentary Travelling While Black, which allowed for some “subtle gaze-triggered events.” What they are experimenting with right now is how they can achieve “six degrees of freedom remotely,” to allow for virtual visitors to move around their space as the events unfold above the earth.

Episodes 2, 3 and 4 of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience are expected to release Spring 2021, Summer 2021 and Fall 2021 respectively. They follow the chronological evolution of the real-life space expeditions, with a specific theme explored in each episode.

Laura Mingail is an award-winning marketer, strategist and thought-leader in the entertainment space. She founded Archetypes & Effects to provide organizations in storytelling industries with impactful strategy, marketing and business development support. She is also a contributing author and media commentator focused on innovative forms of storytelling and technologies.

New VR camera delivered to space station

Space VR camera. (Image courtesy Felix & Paul Studios.)

A new virtual reality camera was successfully delivered to the International Space Station today. It’s not the first VR camera on the ISS, but this new one will allow the astronauts to film spacewalks in virtual reality.

According to NASA, The International Space Station Experience is creating an immersive virtual reality series documenting life and research aboard the space station.

Partnering with the ISS National Lab and TIME, a team from Felix & Paul Studios first launched a customized 360-degree camera to the space station in December 2018 that crew members have used to record a few hours inside the station every week.

Now, Felix & Paul and partner NanoRacks further modified an additional camera to withstand the extreme conditions of space and so that it can be used for filming a spacewalk.

The new camera will be mounted to the Canadarm2 to capture a spacewalk from start to finish as well as footage of Earth and the exterior of the space station, NASA said.

The camera is a Z-Cam V1 Pro camera consisting of nine 4K sensors allowing for a 3D, 360-degree image at 8K resolution and has been specially hardened to withstand vacuum, solar ultraviolet radiation, ionizing radiation, plasma, surface charging and arcing, temperature extremes, thermal cycling, impacts from micrometeoroids and orbital debris, Felix & Paul Studios said in a press release.

The camera can store approximately 15 hours of 3D, 360-degree footage with custom lenses made to withstand extreme light and heat to minimize flare when directly exposed to the Sun.

“Getting this camera to space was the culmination of five years of exceedingly hard work,” said Jonathan Woods, Executive Producer for The ISS Experience at TIME Studios and EMMY-winning producer of A Year in Space, in a statement.

To capture the spacewalk featured in Episode 4 of The ISS Experience, the Space Camera will be mounted and powered via the Nanoracks’ Kaber MicroSatellite Deployer and maneuvered around the outside of the International Space Station by Canadarm2, the Canadian robotic arm on the ISS. Canadarm2 will essentially function like a crane on a movie set, enabling the space camera to capture the spacewalk in fully-immersive virtual reality, bringing viewers alongside the astronauts as if they were part of the crew.

Watch Launch Of The NASA Mars Perseverance Rover In Oculus Venues

The NASA Mars Perseverance Rover is set to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on July 30, and you’ll be able to watch the liftoff in Oculus Venues.

Facebook announced that the countdown and liftoff stream for the NASA Perseverance Rover will be broadcast in Oculus Venues, which is available for Oculus Quest and Oculus Go. The broadcast will begin at 4:00am PST on July 30, and is scheduled to end approximately 2 hours later at 6:00am. The launch time has been tentatively set right in the middle at 4:50am PT, but being a live event, that’s subject to change.

According to NASA, the Perseverance rover mission “takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself.” It will take almost 7 months to reach the red planet, touching down on February 18 next year.

Oculus Venues is an app that allows you to watch an event broadcast in VR while sitting in stadium-like seating, surrounded by other Venues users who are watching in sync with you. You can talk and interact with people around you, each of which is represented by their Oculus Avatar. While there is an option to use Venues by yourself, the main purpose of the app is to provide a social setting to watch an event in VR — it’s essentially simulating being in a live audience.

Venues has mostly hosted music concerts in the past, but has reached been branching out into other areas, such as this NASA liftoff stream or our UploadVR Summer Showcase last month.

You can subscribe to the Oculus Venue Perseverance event online or in the Oculus Venues app on your headset.

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Boeing Is Using Varjo Headsets To Train Astronauts For Its Starliner Spacecraft

US aerospace giant Boeing will use Varjo’s VR-2 advanced mixed reality headset to train astronauts for its Starliner spacecraft.

NASA has used virtual reality for training for decades, but the low resolution limited the range of tasks that could be simulated. Boeing says this is the first end-to-end VR astronaut training system.

Starliner, currently in the uncrewed testing phase, is Boeing’s upcoming reusable crew capsule. It will be used for the same NASA program as SpaceX’s Dragon 2, which in late May launched astronauts for the first time. Essentially, the task once handled by the Space Shuttle (ferrying crew to the International Space Station) will now be taken by these two private companies.

Varjo is a Finnish company which sells ultra high end VR headsets, some with powerful mixed reality capabilities. The unique “bionic” display system projects a smaller but higher resolution image in the center of the lenses. Within this central area, Varjo claims “human eye” resolution.

That comes at a cost though- the VR-2 is priced at $4995. Companies like Facebook and Sony design hardware for a consumer market, but Varjo doesn’t have this restriction.

The astronaut training system can be used for an entire mission, from pre-launch to docking with the international space station, and the full journey back to earth.

The system’s development was lead by Boeing’s Connie Miller. Engineers in Australia recreated the Starliner in Unreal Engine, and this was then integrated in the Houston training center. Miller saw Varjo’s headsets as a breakthrough thanks to the resolution, which allows even the smallest controls to be read clearly.

Using VR also has the advantage of allowing training to continue in pre-launch quarantine, which was not possible with traditional systems.

Starliner includes one seat for potential space tourism. Boeing hasn’t announced concrete plans to commercialise this, but the Varjo based training system has the potential to make training tourists much easier than before.

Boeing hopes the VR system can be brought aboard Starliner itself when it launches in 2021, allowing for in-orbit training of advanced scenarios. In 2017 an Oculus Rift was sent to the International Space Station, but Varjo’s resolution enables completely new use cases.

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