Tech & Science 'Holy crap': Aussie team to work with NASA on virtual space station

02:55  08 august  2018
02:55  08 august  2018 Source:   watoday.com.au

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Mr Bonner leads a small team of Australian designers who are, improbably, working with NASA to build their virtual -reality astronaut training simulator. A virtual astronaut stares at the International Space Station .

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Out for a space walk.© Opaque Media Out for a space walk. When astronaut-trainer Gail Iles tugged the virtual-reality headset off her face so she could wipe away a tear, Mitchell Manganaro knew he had something special.

Mitchell Manganaro is part of a small team of Australian designers who are, improbably, working with NASA to build their virtual-reality astronaut training simulator.

The centrepiece is a painstakingly-detailed virtual replica, accurate right down to the rivets, of the International Space Station.

It was, Dr Iles said, just like being there.

“People who have been to the space station, helped build it, they can’t tell the difference,” says James Bonner, co-founder of Opaque Space, the developer behind the simulation.

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It’s all built by a team of 12, who split their time between Opaque Space's nondescript office near Glenferrie railway station and NASA's Johnson Space Centre in Houston where the simulator has been installed in collaboration with NASA’s Hybrid Reality Laboratory.

At Johnson, astronauts are hooked up to ropes to simulate zero-gravity and can then use Opaque’s VR software to practice fixing parts of the space station.

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As I try to detach a pipe on the virtual International Space Station , which I’ve been scrambling across, I’m suddenly thrown backwards into space . The developers are working in collaboration with NASA to shape the experience.

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And it all started with a post three years ago on Reddit.

At that stage, Opaque Space was about 10 people, including Mr Bonner and co-founder Emre Deniz. They were building VR experiences for academics – simulators for dementia and Alzheimer's.

The ISS hangs above the Earth, in virtual space.© Opaque Media The ISS hangs above the Earth, in virtual space. To demonstrate what their technology could do, they had been working on a side project, a super-detailed space-walk sim. Mr Deniz posted a few images up on Reddit to see what people thought.

A NASA simulation engineer, /u/CaptainBringdown, replied to the post. “You textured that entire model in less than two months?"

“Holy c---.”

The collaboration kicked off from there, frantic midnight forum posts turning first into emails, then calls, then a visit to Houston. Opaque's VR is now regularly used by astronauts training for spaceflight, Mr Bonner says.

The average age of Opaque's artists and designers is about 28. They still don’t really believe they are working with NASA.

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“My first call with NASA was at 3am our time,” says Mitchell Manganaro, the studio manager. “They were like ‘are you still there’, and I’m just crying on the other end of the phone.”

NASA has been building virtual-reality systems for its astronauts for decades, and has its own super-realistic space-station models.

But the VR revolution of the past few years meant a few talented coders in Melbourne were able to quickly knock up something that looked better, ran faster, and felt more real than NASA’s multimillion-dollar systems.

“NASA was building or buying million dollar VR kits. They can now get them for $2000, and they are better in every single way than they were five years ago,” says Mr Bonner.

A version of the experience will also be installed at Scienceworks in time for the school holidays. It can also be bought by anyone who owns their own VR headset.

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Production company Magnopus made the simulation in collaboration with NASA , the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, the Oculus team said in a blog post. Space station astronauts have also worked with Microsoft's HoloLens headsets, which superimpose virtual -reality

You can pull yourself across it using handholds. Let go and you’ll float towards the Earth’s atmosphere – and burn up.

The other secret to Opaque’s experience is an understanding that outer space is not just a physical experience – it’s emotional as well. A sense of awe is essential.

“There’s a real cognitive shift, recorded in everyone who has ever been to space. Seeing the way the planet hangs in the vast blackness of the universe, it changes people’s perspective,” says lead designer Jennifer Scheurle.

“They come back and they are more passionate about the environment, the planet. The realisation all our conflicts are so small.

“I desperately want to translate this into a game.”

You can experience Spacewalk at Scienceworks between September 22 and October 7.

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