At JPL, a select few have been having meetings on Mars, walking the terrain recorded by the Mars rover Curiosity, planting flags and discussing future exploration of the Red Planet. 

In early May, the JPL OpsLab development team gave a presentation that allowed a few journalists to walk on the surface of Mars in a manner that might have set the tongues of faked moon landing conspiracy theorists wagging. No potatoes. No Matt Damon. Just some personal time with the rover and a Curiosity successor, the 2020 Mars rover, through collaboration with Microsoft using prototypes of the Microsoft HoloLens. 

People visiting NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex this summer will also get the chance to visit Mars in a new mixed-reality exhibit called “Destination: Mars.”

As Jeff Norris, the mixed-reality projects lead scientist on the development team from the OpsLab at JPL, explained, “The reason why we’re investing in virtual-augmented reality is that we believe these technologies uniquely have the capability to unlock a lot of natural human ability to understand things.” 

Mixed reality allows researchers to “naturally understand the environment that our rovers are exploring,” Norris said, “and make that task more familiar to them.” 

With JPL Director Charles Elachi stepping down at the end of June and Dr. Michael M. Watkins taking over the leadership of JPL, there’s little doubt about the future direction of space exploration. Right now, and in years to come, the planned destination is Mars. 

Watkins left JPL just a year ago to become the chair of aerospace engineering and director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin. Watkins had been the mission manager for the Curiosity rover mission and contributed to the Mars Odyssey mission. While Mars certainly is the foremost goal, JPL remains a diversified operation and Watkins had served as the project scientist for the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL), the satellite that studied the moon, and the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), the satellite that studied Earth. He also contributed to the Cassini-Huygens unmanned spacecraft probe to Saturn and the space probe Deep Impact, which was designed to study the interior composition of a comet. 

His 22 years at JPL gives Watkins an excellent understanding of the lab and the people working there. While Mars is the immediate destination, Jupiter is another not-so-distant goal with the NASA New Frontiers orbiter, the Jupiter Near-Polar Orbiter, or JUNO, set for a planned orbital insertion on July 4, just days after Watkins officially steps in. 

Elachi will become professor emeritus at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA. Elachi is currently a professor of electrical engineering and planetary science there. Elachi has given TED Talks on Mars rovers, but he won’t be the one talking in Florida. 

At the NASA Kennedy Space Center, the mixed-reality exhibit “Destination: Mars” will literally get the buzz going on the Mars mission, using reconstructed real imagery from Curiosity and bringing in Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon in 1969, as a holographic guide, along with JPL’s Erisa Hines, Curiosity’s driver. Mixed reality uses virtual elements and merges that with the user’s actual environment. The interactive exhibit uses the Microsoft HoloLens mixed-reality headset to help create a world with both real and virtual objects. The exhibit is a controlled version of the NASA-Microsoft collaboration that developed software called OnSight, a new technology that has been allowing scientists to work virtually on Mars.

JPL recently set up a one-day demonstration for journalists of the software application OnSight as well as ProtoSpace. ProtoSpace, which is not part of the “Destination: Mars” exhibit, is a software application that processes 3D spacecraft designs into holograms. The application is currently being used by NASA’s Europa mission, the Mars 2020 mission and the Surface Water Ocean Topography Mission (SWOT) Earth science mission. Fans of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” should be giddy with excitement; these two demonstrations are the show’s Holodeck in primitive form. 

If one has tried the Oculus Rift at Comic-Con in San Diego, or experienced the Irvine-based company’s products, these mixed-reality experiences do not completely take over a person’s visual cues. The Oculus Rift blinds one to their current reality, but the OnSight experience shows you virtual reality on a rectangular screen placed directly in front of the viewer. Through peripheral vision, one can see their reality — people and things like desks and furniture. If one looks down, while keeping their head up and face forward, they can see the real ground, notebook or computer. This means that while talking with other researchers, one can control the experience with gaze, gestures and voice. A person’s own gaze direction is shown by a white dot. Simple human figure avatars represent others involved in the experience, and a dotted line shows a participant where their gaze is directed. 

Likewise, the ProtoSpace software allows a person to see their real environment while the virtual reality is concentrated into a rectangular screen, providing intriguing hints to how product design will be taught in the future. The software enables participants to see and discuss 3D spacecraft designs with a life-size model and by walking in to the image.

Just by looking at a model, either as a prop or on a computer monitor, “You don’t get an intuition as if you were moving around an object,” Norris explained. “The problem I have is understanding scale to see if your hands can fit in between two objects” or how it would feel to reach over or around the rover. 

The mechanical engineer of the SWOT mission, Andy Etters, commented, that’s something even the best-scaled models can’t indicate and building a to-scale model isn’t cost effective. With the ProtoSpace, a person can get an intuitive feel for spatial relationships. 

Etters also noted that on the current model of the 2020 rover there are blades for a small helicopter. The helicopter collapses and attaches to one side of this rover, and when the helicopter folds out and is released it will take aerial photos of Mars. 

Etters also revealed that teams often show their pride in small hidden ways, sometimes like a signature. As a result, the Mars rover Curiosity leaves tracks that spell out JPL in Morse Code. Expect more hidden features and messages that bolster mission team pride. 

While these two mixed-reality technologies are based locally at the JPL, locals won’t be able to see these for themselves unless they travel to Florida to see the “Destination: Mars” exhibit, which involves OnSight only. At this time, there are no plans for demonstrations at the June JPL open house.