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NASA is experimenting with VR to deal with isolation on missions to Mars

Mars is a long way from home, and the trips between here and the Red Planet could be a long, lonely time. With each one-way flight needing months and months, travelers are going to need more than a Big Book of Crossword Puzzles to while away the hours. But with no in-flight broadband and payload mass at an extreme premium, how can we keep astronauts from the psychological hazards of extended isolation in deep space?

For NASA, at least, VR presents a partial solution. NASA teamed up with Time and 8i to create a VR version of Buzz Aldrin, and gave it to participants in NASA’s HI-SEAS simulated Mars expeditions. The collaboration is called Messages to Mars. Aldrin might not be everyone’s first choice as a flight attendant, but when it comes to putting humans on Mars, he really has some ideas about how the whole thing should go down. Now he’s lending his VR presence to astronauts with an inspirational message, along with entertainer Reggie Watts, who will beatbox and crack jokes. The idea is that this technology could be used to enable immersive, meaningful interpersonal communication between Earth and astronauts on their way to Mars.

The VR component of Messages to Mars is powered by 8i, which does a thing called volumetric VR. Using 360-degree motion capture done by an array of cameras, they’re trying to do photorealistic, volumetric holograms. Aldrin’s message is already available for viewing with 8i’s bespoke app, and they’re working on compatibility with Google Cardboard. Other participants are TBD, although Time and others tease a debut for Oculus and the HTC Vive, and a partnership with Soylent for a “complete virtual reality experience” (read: the privilege of eating extremely compact nutritive powders, so it even tastes like you’re in space). All I’m going to say about Soylent is that thanks to The Martian, we all now know that protein cubes can liquefy on their way into space, causing catastrophe, so maybe let’s be careful about how that collaboration goes.

VR is a compelling option for dealing with the long flights to and from Mars (or further!), precisely because it’s meant to be immersive. There’s a qualitative difference between looking at a video of your people on a flat screen embedded in a console panel, with your peripheral vision full of spacecraft, and being able to get down on their level as they toddle around your living room in a 360-degree VR tableau. Even if it’s a placebo, VR could allow astronauts to really get away from their mission and feel like they’re back on Earth with loved ones, at least for a little while.

“As humans embrace the extraordinary commitment to leave earth and make Mars their home, virtual reality will be a very important way of staying in touch,” said Aldrin of Messages to Mars. He added: “What could be more stimulating to students, scientists, and political leaders on Earth than to experience life on another a planet, and for the astronauts journeying to Mars to receive messages from back home? I’m honored to leave my message behind for these courageous men and women who will go down in history in a way that no one ever has before.”

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