Over the weekend, NASA scientists caught a Pikachu on Mars.
Well, technically, it was engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. And it wasn’t really Mars; it was an auditorium at the Los Angeles Convention Center. But the effect was pretty impressive, because thanks to various new virtual reality and augmented reality technologies, a room in a convention center can look like the real Red Planet. (Pikachu looked as cartoonish and adorable as always.)
This weekend saw Virtual Reality Los Angeles, a twice annual convention on virtual reality and related tech, take place in downtown L.A. Software, hardware and game developers came together to discuss the future of technologies like VR and augmented reality, as well as what it will take to truly “immerse” humans in these new virtual spaces—and how far we have to go in making virtual reality feel more like what keynote speaker and comedian Reggie Watts called “OG Reality.”
GET YOUR ASS TO MARS
The folks at JPL are seeing a future for augmented reality—tech that uses a camera to overlay digital information on a screen showing images from the real world—in exploring the solar system. NASA’s Opportunity rover is currently wandering around our nearest planetary neighbor, taking panoramic photos of the Martian landscape. NASA scientists are stitching those photos together to create 3D landscapes. Using Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets, which are glasses with a screen in them that projects an image over your vision, scientists can actually move around those landscapes, looking at things on the Martian surface up close.
“We wanted to accomplish one simple task: Enable scientists to work on Mars from their office,” said Matthew Clausen, Creative Director of Human Interfaces at JPL, during a presentation entitled “NASA: Augmenting Exploration.” He showed off the Mars augmented reality tech, dubbed Project On-site, demonstrating how NASA scientists might use it as he marked a particular spot: “Let’s have a virtual meeting on Mars to discuss this cool rock I just found.”
Augmented reality might be most popularly known as the way Pokémon Go puts virtual monsters into the real world for you to catch, but Clausen and NASA are using it to make space travel easier and more affordable. Marijke Jorritsma, a user experience researcher in the Human Interfaces group at JPL, demonstrated how NASA engineers are using AR to look at the models of spacecraft they’re building and spot problems before the craft are actually built.
NASA isn’t just using the tech for people studying things in space; they’re using it in space. During Astronaut Scott Kelly’s year at the International Space Station, he tested out augmented reality software that superimposes information onto the actual space station. That allowed him to accomplish some complex tasks, ones that he’d normally have to look up in a giant NASA manual and that would take hours to complete, in a fraction of the time.
And augmented reality software that instantly tells astronauts how to deal with, say, a fire in a particular area or system of the space station could save lives.
BEYOND VIDEO GAMES
Virtual reality is best known as a video gaming technology. There are other entertainment and social possibilities right now as well, like watching sporting events or movies (or the Olympics) in VR or holding virtual conversations with friends, but primarily it’s about video games at the moment.
Probably the most interesting thing about VRLA was the look at possibilities for the technology beyond video games. Some are looking at finding ways to tell stories in deeper ways. Gil Baron, co-founder and CEO at a company called Visionary VR, unveiled an app called Mindshow, which basically makes DIY movie production possible to just about anybody who can pony up for a VR rig.
Users pick a set, characters and props, and place them into a virtual space. They can hop into the characters and puppet them using VR motion controls like those available with the HTC Vive headset. You record your own motion and voice performances with each of the characters, string it all together, and bam: you’ve created a VR movie by yourself.
“Creating a story, whether on film or with a computer, is incredibly difficult, time-consuming and expensive. The end result might be fun, but the process is anything but,” Baron said during the announcement. To create stories with Mindshow, and virtual reality, he said, the only additional tool you really need is your body—the thing you’ve spent a lifetime learning how to use.
Setting the tone for the whole event was Reggie Watts. The star of Comedy Bang! Bang! delivered VRLA’s keynote, which functioned mostly as a send-up of tech announcements. Between musical outbursts and made-up descriptions of fictional products like “Main Menu”—literally the setup menu for the video projector aimed at the screen on stage—Watts affectionately skewered the tone of incredible, amazing, futuristic possibility that permeates pretty much all tech events.
“This is a new age—it’s at least 2015 right now, and we’re looking at some pretty amazing technology coming out of the gate,” Watts said. “Digital Cardboard—like Google Cardboard—it’s interesting to use. And it looks cool to put a cardboard box against your face. I’ve been wanting to do that all my life.”
It was a good place for the tone of the event, because while VRLA focused on a variety of aspects of the tech—ways entrepreneurs can get in on it, new products that will help make games more exciting or immersive and methods to cut cords and bring VR users out of their chairs and into fully functional spaces—it also had plenty to say about the road that’s still to be traveled.
MAKING VR MORE LIKE ‘OG R’
During the panel “HP Presents: The Future of VR Hardware,” experts from a number of companies discussed what we’ll be seeing in the future, and issues yet to be tackled. For one thing, there’s the problem of what you hear in virtual reality, and how you hear it.
As Zach Jaffe of Subpac, a company that makes tactile VR vests, noted during the panel, there’s a lot more to sound than what you hear: sound is felt throughout the body, and how it is felt affects the information you gather about a space. Subpac’s vest simulates how sounds feel when they hit your body, even at low frequencies you can’t actually hear. And then there’s how your head gathers and interprets sounds, beyond just the anatomy of your ear, as Joy Lyons of audio company OSSIC explained. Her company is working on headphones that include sensors that gather anatomical information about the wearer, adjusting how sound is projected to better simulate the real world.
Even HP’s wireless VR backpack computer, the Omen X, seems essential to a VR experience that’s more Star Trek holodeck than 1990s Hollywood. In general, it’s a lot of stuff to wear and money to spend—and that’s to say nothing of the improvements still needed to headsets and their displays to make for truly immersive experiences.
But if VRLA showed off anything, it was that there are a lot of people excited about the technology and fielding cool ideas of where it could go. The dream of actually running around impossible virtual spaces for video games is fast becoming a reality, and it’s possible that we’ll be using VR for a lot more than that, as well.
Expect to be catching Pikachus on Mars before too much longer, at least.