NASA Uses Video Games to Explore Space

Posted by Conor Murphy on November 27, 2012 in Gaming Lifestyle -- Share:

Just imagine what the scene must look like over at NASA – a team of researchers focused on satellite and telescope images, as well as a lot more calculus than anyone ever wants to see. Oh, and a bunch of scientists playing video games. That’s right, the same technology that delivers quality home entertainment is also being used to explore the final frontier.

NBC news columnist Winda Benedetti highlighted the presentations made by several NASA scientists, who spoke at the Penny Arcade Expo earlier this month. One of NASA’s initiatives may be able to bring Mars right into your living room.

Three Mars Rovers

In an astonishing achievement in space exploration, scientists recently sent the Curiosity Rover to go where no man had gone before (and still hasn’t gone): Mars. Despite being rather significant, the Mars Rover landing does lack some of the pizazz of past achievements such as the Moon landing. For one, it’s a little more difficult for robots to improvise memorable quotes. Secondly, it’s a little harder to personalize the accomplishment when a robot is doing all the grunt work. Thankfully, we have video games to bring things a little closer to home.

Benedetti reported on the Gale Crater, which is an interactive experience designed using real satellite images from Mars. It allows players to explore the surface of the planet from the comfort of their own homes. And, for players interested in a really distant offroad experience, NASA has made free online games that enable gamers to take control of a virtual version of Curiosity.

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

Oh, but the usefulness of video games doesn’t stop there, according to Benedetti. In addition to using them to teach about space exploration, NASA researchers have adapted certain video game technology to better control space spelunking robots. After all, things on other planets can get a little rocky, and that makes agility a pretty important feature. The challenge: How do you manage to maneuver a robot dexterously when it’s millions of miles away on a completely alien surface? The answer is video game motion control technology!

Mars Rover Curiosity Rover

“This is going to revolutionize so many things about our world and the ways that we work and the ways that we play but also the ways that we explore,” Jeff Norris, manager of the planning and execution systems section at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told NBC. “There is, in my opinion, no greater tool for human exploration than an environment like this that can put you on those distant planets.”

Well, ok, the technology does have a little ways to go. A lot of motion control sensors are designed for people to take control virtual, human-looking avatars. It takes a little adjustment to transition from that to maneuvering robots. After all, many robots don’t look anything like humans – some of them also have six arms. But the technology might not be as far off as you think. Benedetti reported that there is already an experimental design for using video games to control All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE). NASA scientists were successful in mapping motion controls for the six-limbed robotic astronaut. Norris believes advancements in gaming technology, particularly virtual reality, will be used in the not-too-distant future for exploring the cosmos.

How far off is virtual reality?

The problem with predicting the future is that technology moves so fast that an accurate description will seem completely unrealistic to a modern audience. Meanwhile, a prediction that seems plausible will not come anywhere near the truth. For example, did you imagine technology like the holodeck would exist within your lifetime? It might happen – in fact, it’s already in development.

Project holodeck is a virtual reality system designed using motion controls and head-mounted display goggles. The developers have already made fairly ambitious progress with the technology, as is showcased by the description on their website.

Project Holodeck Concept

“This space will be combined with vehicular locomotion (piloting an airship) or in-place locomotion (jogging in place to ‘run’),” the project’s creators wrote. “This way, players can move around in personal ‘micro’ space as they would naturally while also moving around in larger ‘macro’ space. Although you’re in a VR environment, you’ll feel like you’re outside with a whole world to explore.”

It could mean interesting things for gamers, who would gain an entirely new level of immersion. Imagine being able to reach for and pick up objects in your favorite Hidden Object games! But combining that kind of technology could also have some significant implications for research like NASA’s. The same motion control capabilities used to maneuver characters in the video game world could be adjusted to maneuver robots as they explore far away planets. In a sense, the robot would become a real-life avatar!

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Conor is a Marketing Manager with Big Fish, working out of the Seattle office. In his spare time he enjoys watching science documentaries and playing old school adventure games. Get in touch with him on Twitter! or Google+