The growth and promise of virtual reality has become a real opportunity for NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to step into its realm of possibilities.
From mission research to educational outreach efforts, the uses for virtual reality are becoming a boundless playground of potential.
“It’s really becoming pervasive and just we want to help our workforce figure out how to best take advantage of that in a safe and secure manner,” said Ed McLarney, an information technology specialist at NASA Langley who is helping spearhead virtual reality efforts.
No matter the usage this new technology can provide, it’s all in the name of making the jobs of NASA Langley employees better, more efficient – and just a bit cooler.
“The future is here and we got to get with it,” McLarney said. “It’s another game-changer that’s upon us now.”
The new realities
There are three types of emerging reality-based computer technologies available for research: virtual, augmented and mixed.
Virtual reality replicates an environment, real or imagined, and simulates a user’s physical presence and environment to allow for interaction. Think of headsets like the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive or PlayStation VR where you don’t see the world around you and you’re transported somewhere different.
Augmented reality places objects in front of you that normally aren’t there using a device like a smartphone – think apps like Google Maps or Pokemon Go. The Microsoft HoloLens, which is a self-contained holographic computer that was sent up to the International Space Station, is an augmented reality device that projects 3-D objects out in front of you.
Mixed reality, or sometimes called hybrid reality, is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time.
“This is just going to be like any other tool,” said Josh Kinne, a deputy project manager in NASA Langley’s Flight Projects Directorate. “So the same way CAD tools have changed the way we design things … this is just the next evolution in that. This is going to be the way we visualize information going forward and this is going to be a standard tool we take for granted in another 10 years.”
Tools of the trade
At NASA Langley, Oculus Rift, HoloLens and HTC Vive headsets are starting to show up in locations across the facility.
“Almost any researcher, scientist or engineer here could take advantage of these,” McLarney said. “What we want to do is help the people who want to do that, rather than having every person here have to figure it out from the very beginning for themselves.”
Kinne, who considers himself an “enthusiast and a tools champion,” helps put the puzzle pieces together between departments.
“This opportunity popped up” to help facilitate more collaboration and communication between NASA centers, he said. “We helped with a few of the proposals,” for example NASA’s Hyperwall system, hardware for maker spaces and purchasing augmented and virtual reality workstations, he said.
The challenges of the new digital realities are on two fronts: successfully implementing them into NASA centers and selling their use cases to senior officials. Proponents are making the case for using virtual or augmented reality for research and development applications, not fun and games. Concurrent engineering is one example of professional use, “where you can visualize something in three dimensions,” Kinne said.
Robust day-to-day applications may be years away, Kinne said, but “there are things we can take advantage of today,” such as things that are currently viewed on a 2-D screen that only need a small amount of adaptation to support a virtual reality headset.
“One of our goals with the work that we’re doing here is we want to be able to have two engineers, no matter where they are – they could be a different NASA center or anywhere else – we want them to be able to look at the same virtual scene and communicate with each other and to interact with that scene,” he said.
Another NASA use for virtual or augmented reality is designing a machine part and seeing if it will fit by communicating with someone at another center via a headset, Kinne said.
“You can see how you part affects the greater project – how it will fit in, how it may interact or cause other problems,” said Jeffrey Brandt, a solutions architect for NASA Langley’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.
“We want to be able to have that conversation back and forth,” Kinne said.
One more potential use is to integrate virtual reality in interactive classroom sessions through the NASA Digital Learning Network, said Gamaliel “Dan” Cherry, head of Langley’s Collaboration and Talent Development Branch.
He said the Digital Learning Network through the NASA education office is looking at practical applications and “what virtual environments do we want to have that we can actually immerse students in so that we can use them as teaching tools as opposed to edutainment.”
A key portion of any outreach effort is to meet people where they are at, as today’s young target audiences are youth who in a world of instant gratification and feedback, Cherry said.
“Any kid is used to interacting with many of their friends in all kinds of virtual worlds in the video game universe,” McLarney said. “I can see it definitely being used as outreach for education.”
One of those instant immersions is taking students on virtual field trips. Even though nothing can replace the real thing, Cherry said, using technology to get students excited about NASA and STEM has huge potential.
“We don’t know when we’re able to flip the switch when it comes down to a student,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to leverage the technology we have.”
NASA Langley researchers realize that there are long- and short-term goals for virtual reality work that are challenging and will push the envelope.
“We know that in 20 years, technology is going to do all sorts of crazy things we can’t even imagine today,” McLarney said.
“Virtual reality and augmented reality used to be too expensive or too challenging for an individual researcher to use on their own,” Kinne said. “The way the hardware has become commoditized … means that even with a basic understanding of these 3-D engines, you can actually create meaningful content as actual applications or for research and development.”
As the private sector embraces virtual reality, the possibilities for public agencies could grow – something that many at NASA Langley are betting on. However, there are still challenges to solve regarding who’s going to develop the software.
“We need to have actual developers and people who can build out these applications that the researchers need,” Brandt said.
“This is not a technology that NASA needs to invent for itself,” McLarney said. “It’s one where industry and academia is inventing it for us and we need to figure out how to apply it.”
Kinne said that NASA is developing software usage now so the agency can be a smart buyer as virtual reality tools become cheaper and more available in the marketplace.