NASA: Virtual reality and cognitive computing

By | 3 minute read | June 16, 2016

NASA and virtual reality

‘Virtual reality’ and ‘cognitive computing’ have become the trends to watch in the tech industry in recent years. In many ways, the excitement makes sense. The world around us continues to converge and become infinitely more connected, driven largely by the ability for businesses to sort, analyze, and action on the vast amounts of data that are being generated everyday. This, paired with a new generation of inexpensive VR headsets have sparked a flurry of renewed interest for gamers, just as ‘thinking’ computers like IBM’s Watson have literally stolen the show while schooling human opponents on Jeopardy. However, thanks to a recent slate of research by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), these two technologies are poised to help us travel far beyond the bounds of Earth.

Despite its consumer gaming roots, virtual reality in particular is experiencing a renaissance. NASA has been exploring new ways to use VR technology to relay information on the moon, passing asteroids, and Mars back to Earth. For an emerging field that was viewed as a technological novelty not too long ago, NASA’s adoption of VR tech is vindicating, as researchers are now proving VR has several practical applications in exploring the great beyond. But consider the difficulty in designing a system that can replicate the conditions of space within a virtual reality environment. Thousands of functional requirements need to be analyzed, understood, and categorized in near real-time to make the use of VR worthwhile for NASA training. It is here that the power of Watson IoT becomes an essential part of the pre-launch team.

Virtual reality and planetary exploration

One of the major goals of researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is to remotely control vehicles for extra-planetary exploration, rather than manually maneuvering vehicles or programming robotic sequences in advance and letting them run. By using control panels similar to the ones developed for VR gameplay during live space missions, operators will theoretically be able to navigate the space robots from a nearby space station—or even all the way from Earth.

Another application of cutting-edge VR tech in space exploration currently in use is testing new vehicles in virtual space before building prototypes in physical space. Because programmers can recreate the physics of any environment in VR—whether it’s zero gravity or the heavy winds and rugged terrain of a treeless planet—NASA engineers can hone in on otherwise unforeseen problems that could potentially occur when the very real, and very expensive equipment is on the line.

Additionally, VR helps the crews prepare for obstacles they may encounter on missions. This is especially useful in orbital trajectory planning where pilots can practice maneuvering certain flight paths according to the actual physics of space, but from the safety of a space-like digital environment. VR training is also handy to help prep for day-to-day life in space. In fact, according to NASA, one-third of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews’ training time was spent in a simulator, and one-half for crews planning to land on the moon.

Of course, VR can’t overcome all the constraints of physics. If an astronaut wants to control a rover on Mars virtually from Earth, they’re bound by the rate at which they’re able to transmit information. Even if that’s the speed of light, it would take about three minutes to transmit from Earth to Mars at its closest approach, and a little over 22 from its farthest. Recently, JPL researchers have been testing the technology across California, and if all goes well the Sarcastic Rover may soon have some friends to play with on Mars – possibly even IBM Watson in the driver’s seat.

While NASA’s astronauts are busy learning how to explore the cosmos using VR, researchers at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center have started exploring the possibility of employing IBM Watson as a flight operations advisor. In this role, NASA flight crews would leverage Watson’s ability to crunch large amounts of aviation data that come in from any number of devices to help with rapid decision-making. By tasking Watson with the heavy research needed to quickly identify and respond to unforeseen circumstances in-flight, NASA hopes to offload the brunt of real-time research usually performed by both in-flight and ground crews on the cognitive computer.

Whether we’re exploring Mars from our living rooms or traveling there in a spacecraft, NASA is determined to bring Watson and virtual reality along for the ride. Today, they’re assistive technologies, but in a not-too-distant future cloud-based cognitive computers like Watson could just as easily be our new co-pilots!