Computer technology is reaching new levels of sophistication, limited only by our imagination (and that pesky Moore’s Law). As we develop faster and more powerful processors, an exponential increase in the number of calculations can be done per second, providing advanced software with the capability to deliver complex applications to the user. In fact, some computer operations are becoming hard to distinguish from basic human interactions (neural networks hold particular promise).
Naturally, this continuing advance in technology has stimulated the Internet, allowing users worldwide to interact at great speed, where virtual worlds have been created, and people can project themselves as an avatar (a virtual ambassador for their real-world personalities). These virtual worlds have become so immense that millions of users can interact, and the boundary of the universe is only limited by how many networked computers you have running the show. These virtual universes are known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), and NASA hopes to release their universe (Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond) some time next year.
User interfaces are advancing too. Gone are the days of simple gaming feedback features (such as a rumbling joypad when your 3D animated cartoon character suffers a blow on your 2D TV screen), virtual reality is starting to live up to its name, where the virtual world is overlapping with our real world. Now a 5-sense virtual reality system is undergoing tests, and its implications for NASA’s MMORPG and future space exploration could be huge…
When does virtual reality become… reality?
Imagine: You’ve just completed your expedition inside the Hellas impact basin on the surface of Mars. You can smell the new plastic inside your spacesuit and hear the hiss of your air supply in the back of your bulbous helmet. Looking out over the crater bottom, the 9 km high wall of Martian rock restricts your view of the planet; there’s a feeling that you are closed into a huge hole dug out by an unimaginably large shovel. Looking down, you survey the scattered rocks and rusty regolith. Although your suit isn’t as bulky as what is needed on the Moon or during an EVA, it still restricts your movement as you bend over to collect more fist-sized rocks for your research. Surprisingly, the ground is very frosted and you spot small collections of water ice. It hasn’t sublimed into the air.
As you are so deep, the air pressure is nearly twice as high as the atmospheric average. According to orbital measurements, it may even get warm enough for liquid water to exist on the surface. This is why you’re here, to seek out signs of seasonal weathering on the samples, and to look for signs of large quantities of water to be used in your habitat. Looking around, this isn’t just a gentle winter frosting, water is here, and there’s lots of it…
As we may not be sending man to Mars for a long time yet, the above scenario could be just as well played out in virtual reality as in real life. As there is little political incentive for a NASA-led manned mission to the Red Planet any time soon (and no, an Apollo 2.0 to Mars to save the ailing US economy isn’t the incentive we are looking for), could a virtual Mars be constructed for training and exploration purposes?
As it turns out, NASA is currently working with a group of software companies to release “Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond” (reminds me of the awesome 1999 “X: Beyond the Frontier” first-person space adventure game). The scheduled rollout date is sometime in 2010, but it looks like the MMORPG is already a long way down the road of development. This new NASA universe will be based in a near-future reality where online subscribers can play the role of explorer, doing “mundane” astronaut tasks in low-Earth orbit, to setting up colonies on the Moon and Mars. Although I doubt the NASA universe will be able to compete with online fantasies such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, it may invigorate space science outreach to the largest audience available. A worthy project in my view, Astroengine will be watching developments very closely.
Then, yesterday, GearCrave posted an article about the development of a “5-sense virtual reality system”. We all remember those cumbersome head boxes that promised to be the “dawn of a new age” in computer visualization back in the ’80′s and ’90′s. Unfortunately, little had changed as the hardware simply wasn’t there to display anything close to a “virtual reality” (giving the user a bout of nausea and unrealistic graphics). Also, the user feedback was very one-dimensional. However, as time has moved on, and the gaming industry has driven graphic hardware into a new era, we suddenly have a suite of user feedback systems (such as a rumbling joypad or the sense of touch through a special glove). Now there is the desire to move from the 2D TV screen, immersing the user inside a more realistic “virtual reality”. In fact, this new development provides user feedback via several senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and feelings.
Researchers from York and Warwick universities are developing the ultimate virtual reality headset, that won’t directly manipulate the brain (via electrode-induced agony) but manipulate the senses to induce an emotional response. This will be achieved through the use of hi-tech smell and taste sprayers. Also, the visual element will be stunning. The screen will naturally be in high definition, with far greater light and dark limits. To say the view will be crisp is an understatement.
So, we now have the ability to create our own virtual universes. We are fast approaching the point where fully-immersive virtual reality may be a possibility (although the brain can be tough to trick at times, the VR would have to be VERY good to fool us wily humans). Computer systems are becoming so advanced that “graphics” may be a bad description of the world you are participating in looks like you are in a real world. Also, the spin-off technology from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) could effectively make the Internet transparent (the only limit on speed would be the speed of light when uploading/downloading files, imagine that).
Personally, I cannot imagine a future where mankind is stuck on Earth, just sending probes to do the exploration of space for us, but say if these robotic missions could do something a little more than basic reconnaissance missions? What if the unmanned rovers, landers and satellites become so advanced that they can collect all the data we’ll ever need from the planets in the Solar System? This data could be used in a sufficiently advanced distributed network on Earth, allowing Internet users to collaborate (in the spirit of existing online projects such as Galaxy Zoo, but powered by a fully immersive MMORPG system), exploring a virtual reality universe based primarily on real data, but with intelligent algorithms that fill in the details and known physical/biological processes. However, in this virtual reality, users will be able to see, smell, hear, taste and feel, with physical feedback mechanisms.
This kind of project would have a vast array of practical applications; from doing science with real data, to training astronauts/settlers ahead of a real mission to Mars. However, there are two mind-bending philosophical questions that are attached to this eventuality: