One of our newer experiments is with virtual reality. Given the hype around the technology, I looked forward to trying it but was a bit skeptical. Friends and commercials always seemed to exaggerate their reactions, jumping back to avoid an oncoming train like people watching their first motion picture.

Then, I tried a tech demo with the VR headset. I was surprised to find my brain having trouble resolving simulated depth as my feet inched towards the edge of a skyscraper’s scaffolding. It commanded my stomach to release butterfly’s and say, “Move back, you idiot!” You’re gonna get us killed. I happily gave into the illusion, leaning over the edge to see cars zooming past underneath me, oblivious to my presence or the birds flying overhead. Was I Batman ready to take flight, I wondered? Or just someone who had one too many water-cooler conversations than they could handle.

“I was surprised to find my brain having trouble resolving simulated depth as my feet inched towards the edge of a skyscraper’s scaffolding.”

The device could throw me into an environment so immersively  that I my untrained body reacted to it. I could be placed inside of a scary movie, for example, where wondering if someone was behind me wouldn’t be necessary. Now, it was much worse. I could turn around and look.

More practical applications were less obvious from this first demo, but I was ready to begin our experiment.

Space Applications for VR

Virtual reality is commonly discussed as a tool for future space settlements in which people live out their entire lives, or large portions of them, away from Earth. This may sound like science fiction, but such scenarios have slowly become a common topic of conversation. Preliminary applications of VR are already being investigated and tried for current space missions.

In the context of future settlements, virtual worlds, if done at a high enough fidelity, could suit several applications. Some suggest it could be used to teach people who had never been to Earth about the planet. Another application much closer to becoming reality is its use as a way of reminding people of home, transporting them to familiar locations for comfort and positive mental health. I imagine this would require environments such as quiet childhood parks rather than awkward family dinners when your aunt said something so socially offensive that you didn’t know whether to laugh or leave the table.

A very limited resource in space is, well…space. Real estate on spacecraft is costly and adds engineering challenges. Large open spaces are often out of the question and even windows have traditionally been fought for by astronauts and argued against by engineers due to structural concerns. Virtual reality may provide a way for cramped spaces to feel, for a moment, like large and open spaces.

Here, the six of us share a small habitat without much space to roam. I haven’t seen any family since I’ve gotten here, and I’ve nearly forgotten what it’s like waking up to the sound of birds chirping or a noisy city.

“Virtual reality may provide a way for cramped spaces to feel, for a moment, like large and open spaces.”

It makes sense, then, that some of these ideas be tested on our mission.

Here’s my first experience with in-mission virtual reality.

First Experience

I slipped on the plastic headset and tried not to think of my crewmates’ head sweat that had probably soaked into the foam lining it. As it turns out, germophobic behavior doesn’t go away in my virtual world.

The videos started but instead of digital worlds, I was met with real life scenes. Initial images placed me in a town with structures resembling Alsatian-style homes, cobblestone roads, and rolling farmland surrounding them. My mind jumped immediately to Ingwiller, a tiny town in Northern France where I lived with a local family for some time.

I looked around the virtual world and thought back to walking down a long hilly road, forever absent of human presence, to a large field with cows in the distance. I’d play soccer and ninja with my host family’s children, sweeping them into gentle tufts of grass or trying to keep up with them as they dipped under electric fences that they ‘forgot’ to tell me were electrified. I remembered the youngest boy of the children, whose grossness far exceeded any other human being I had ever met, convincing me he was not from this world. Once he sneezed so hard at dinner that every ounce of his alien goo ejected from his face into a spider-like web between his forearm and bicep. His response? To lick it up! His parent’s response? ‘It’s good for the immune system.”

I assure you they were otherwise lovely people.

Back to the video. To my side, a stream rolled by and the familiar sound of rushing waters sang to me. The sound transported me to a river on a farm back home where I spent one of the most rejuvenating years of my life. I thought of the walks I took by that stream in mornings before I had to drive into concrete jungles for work, and how natural it felt waking up to the sunrise and a smiling face. I remembered considering becoming a lifetime hippy, learning to live strictly off fresh kale and carefully concocted herbal tea while spending my days hand-painting signs that read ‘Arms are for Hugging’.

These tangents continued with every new scene. Changes in the virtual environment kept forwarding my mind to locations I had once called home. It wasn’t tricking me into being in the place it wanted me to be in, but it made it possible for me to imagine being in locations I had already been very vividly.

Then, something changed.

The VR environment placed me in a forest, begging in the same way – familiar and comforting. Large climbable boulders, surrounding pine trees, and a forest floor covered in hundreds of plant species. At first I thought of geocaching, or walking through dense New Hampshire forests.

It was all so familiar until I looked down and realized I was much higher than the path below me. I had been placed up in the branches of a tree, and my active imagination spared no time kicking in to resolve the discrepancy. Clearly, I was some sort of ninja, waiting for an enemy. Or maybe I was an animal sneaking around, now stealthily perched. What was I waiting for, I wondered?

“..my active imagination spared no time kicking in to resolve the discrepancy. Clearly, I was some sort of ninja..”

I consistently found myself in this cycle – bouncing my mind into different places. At times, it reconnected me with my past, allowing me to more vividly experience places I’ve been deprived of in here, such as sitting and soaking up the unobtrusive tones of New England woods. At other times when I was placed at unfamiliar locations, or in an unlikely perspective, it acted more like a good book. These provided a starting point and direction for my imagination to run in, acting as a unique kind of escapism. Some environments left the door open for both. With a rolling waterfall ahead of me and endless forest behind, I could either focus on memories about trekking around Nicaragua, or fantasize about being Nathan Drake searching for treasure.

Perhaps one of the more striking parts of the experience was my reaction to seeing people. Several locations included average citizens simply going about their business. Looking at these people gave me quite a strange feeling, as I had nearly forgotten what it was like to see a stranger in the distance. I see my crewmates every day, but never strangers. Never a man in a coffee shop with his head in his hand struggling to study, a young girl playing guitar for spare change, or a flirting couple clearly on a first date. I haven’t seen a dog stroll by and needed to wonder where their owner is. It feels like ages since I’ve had to contemplate how to react to such situations. Is it alright to look? Should I wave hello? What’s that person thinking, and what’s their story? What assumptions have I already made about them?

“I had nearly forgotten what it was like to see a stranger in the distance”

I had basically forgotten this very basic part of life in society, but this technology made me cognizant of it.

Of course, VR was not perfect. There were certainly technical limitations that restricted how immersed I could become. There’s also that pesky actual reality – the one that exists again when I walked into a table, or brushed against the canvas wall of our habitat. Still, I was impressed at this first real attempt at the technology and its ability to incite emotions and physical reactions, remind me of homes, and take my mind to new and interesting places.

Questions and Thinking Forward

My first experience with VR was positive, but I do wonder about its use in the context of someone who has lived on another planet for much of their lives. Would images of Earth matter at all to someone on another planet who had never seen it? Would it inspire wonder of what the planet is like? Is it possible that it could give such a person sense of home deep down, driven by the origin of their species as if the cosmic address of our planet is inscribed somewhere in DNA. Perhaps, for the same reason, they would feel more at home among the stars. On the other hand, maybe it would feel the same to them as experiencing a virtual reality Mars may feel to us on Earth right now.

It’s likely that VR will hold some place in the future past its novelty now, both on Earth and off it. Here, I imagine entertainment will dominate first before social interactions take over (There’s a reason Oculus VR was bought by Facebook). Imagine replacing Skype with being able to move around a family member in the same room, sit down, and play a game of checkers. Think about watching a super hero movie and needing to look all around you as Iron Man flies overhead and the Hulk is smashing something behind you. Artists will find ways to place us behind the eyes of someone else to elicits emotion and make you more empathetic to others’ situations.

In outer space and other planets, the technology could act as a tool for expanding living spaces and instruction. There are already potential applications for space missions that currently exist. Astronauts on the ISS, for example, could use it to feel closer ties to home, and to elicit memories of familiar areas. Perhaps it will someday be used for more intimate calls with their families, being able to feel more present in the room and making long-duration missions less strenuous on children and spouses.

VR was more impressive than I had expected it to be. The new medium had, at the very least, the ability to transport my mind to places that define me as well as to new places that I may not have otherwise imagined.

It’s can be a fuel for imagination and a catalyst for nostalgia.

 

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