NASA Engineers Develop A VR Tool To Experience Mars And Other World Data Virtually

hero person viewing mars via vr
NASA has been involved with the development of virtual reality (VR) technology since it was simply a concept. For the space agency, it is much more than a means of entertainment, it is helping to overcome issues such as being able to solve the visual distance issue when looking at images from Mars and now to help solve large-scale data-related issues sent back from the Martian surface.

When teams at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratories gaze upon images sent back from one of the rovers on Mars, they are at times faced with being able to correctly judge distance. This is due to the fact they are trying to figure out how far a distant object is via a flat image. To overcome this dilemma, NASA has built a virtual world that allows researchers to view the landscape through a VR headset. Now, researchers are developing a way for scientists to essentially do the same thing, but with the data sent back from the rovers.

"Looking at pictures on a screen is a much different experience to walking through a canyon," explained Scott Davidoff, manager of the Human Centered Design Group at JPL.

image of vr being used to explore 3D data

This led Davidoff to begin innovating a new way to view the data being sent back from the Curiosity rover using VR. Others had tinkered with ways of overcoming the issue, like using 3D imagery viewable with red and blue filtered glasses, but none of them seemed to give the scientists the feeling of actually being on Mars alongside the rover. So, Davidoff and his colleagues "decided to wrap the panorama around the scientist in a virtual environment," according to NASA.

NASA pointed out that geologists have been using VR in this manner to produce an atmosphere that immersed them in a Martian environment. The fact that geologists were able to ascertain things such as distance and the size of features more efficiently than by utilizing a flat display, inspired Davidoff and his team to begin thinking along the same lines for those attempting to work out more complex "multi-dimensional" data.

"When you look at a network diagram as a system in 3D," Davidoff began explaining, "it turns out your perception does something different. We made a data world where an analyst could look at any science or engineering problem and see patterns and correlations more clearly than they can in a flat version."

Fortunately, around the same time, Davidoff and his team were looking into creating a VR world of data, Ciro Donalek and George Djorgovski at Caltech were also researching how to implement immersive environments for scientific data visualization and collaboration. This led the three to join forces to create software that uses 3D visualizations to examine relationships between points of data. In order to advance the software even further, the teams implemented other features like artificial intelligence to point out patterns and relationships within the visualized data.

3D data on laptop

"We call it intelligent exploration," remarked Donalek. "You're using AI and 3D visualizations to quickly identify drivers and relationships in your data, and drive understanding in ways 2D graphs aren't capable of." He continued, "You can start getting insights from your data right away because it's literally drag and drop."

The software the teams developed can be used on a desktop and VR and is compatible with several popular VR headsets. NASA explains that while the platform is available for use anywhere there is a large amount of data to sift through, it is most often found in places like banking, retail, and medical research. It is capable of visualizing data such as a spreadsheet to a large "data take" without having to move the data from where it resides.

The space agency has a long history of sharing its research with those in the private sector. This allows the new technology to be used to view science from the surface of Mars and things like stock trades on Wall Street. NASA says its "visualization efforts have led to a whole new dimension of research."
Tags:  3D, space, NASA, mars, VR