Virtual Astronauts4 min read

Traveling to Mars has fascinated the human mind for eons and the idea embodies the next obvious step in human exploration. We’ve sent robots to the red planet, but a manned mission is still several years away at best. And when we finally do overcome the barriers of sending humans to Mars it will be initially limited to a few brave explorers.

Eventually, perhaps, our intrepid spirit and improved viability will propel larger and larger groups to travel to our solar neighbor, but these original flights will be expensive and more life disruptive than selling your house and moving to Antarctica.

This commitment is because travel to Mars and outer space for that matter is hard. There are many challenges to the trip that we are close to solving, but still require years of development and the spirit of brave, hardened and specifically educated and trained pioneers.

These barriers to entry put a damper on the hopes of those of us who have dreamed of space travel. Although these issues seem daunting, new methods to explore the the red planet have arrived making it virtually accessible to everyone, and I mean that literally. Virtual reality or VR is finally entering the stage of development and the mass market, where we all have access to devices at affordable costs. This trend has been popularized by Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus recently. Even though we are not likely to get martian soil in our fingernails soon, the ability experience more and more realistic explorations are here and improving rapidly.

According to Forbes magazine, Fusion, MIT, and NASA are collaborating on a VR experience that will place users on Mars long before real astronauts reach the Red Planet in the 2030s. Adding to the excitement of this development is the increased accessibility of VR. According to Explora News Tips and Review, the smartphone has become the perfect vehicle for VR because its specs are designed for video games, which are more demanding than simple video.

This becomes significant, because it’s the beginning of an adequate VR experience. Currently the gear VR, like Oculus Rift, self contained apparatuses are for developers only. They are becoming available in March 2016, however. More significantly, though, there has been an even more accessible and affordable option created, like Cardboard for Android and iPhone. This is a platform as well as device and the simple equipment interfaces with Androids and iPhones to provide VR. The device removes external distractions, immersing the user in the whole video experience. There is even audio technology that calculates the doppler effect like our ears do, to increase senses of distance, making head movements sync with the changes in the sound of the virtual environment and perspective. With Cardboard, the user must supply their own audio earpieces, but these cardboard devices can be found for around $10.

Now to be clear, this is a visual and audio VR experience. The developments of body suits and treadmills that will give visceral experience are in the works but limited to developers so far. Still, a visual and audio tour of our neighboring planet is a pretty cool substitute for waiting decades to get in a tin can and fly, with minimal resources through hostile space to a barren and inhospitable planet.

None of this would be possible, however, if it weren’t for the 360 hi-def cameras and associated software, though. This technology allows users to capture the panoramic 360 degree view in video so viewers can change perspectives, look up, down and all around. Upon viewing the video, examples are provided in this piece, instead of a mouse pointer, the viewer uses a grabber, that moves the video perspective. On smartphones and tablets, the view need only tilt or rotate the device and the view changes. This works perfectly with the Oculus Rift or Cardboard viewers. Additionally, 360 video cameras that capture the whole 3D view of any moment link with software that stitches this film together seamlessly to allow users to move video in all directions, seeing all that is there.

The creation of the VR Mars experience coupled with the ever decreasing cost and increasing accessibility of VR means that tromping around the unexplained structures of Cydonia is soon to be a reality, albeit a virtual one. Feeling the iron oxide between our fingers is farther off. But the idea that we can soon become virtual astronauts is an exciting prospect for most of us.


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