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Mackenna Lee

Disembark, Grow, Illuminate.

Your next meeting room… Mars?

Well-known fact about me – I find space and astrophysics to be undeniably awe-inspiring. How cool is it that when we look up to the sky, we are looking into history?


No upper threshold on photos of Caltech. My photo.

I have been a regular attendee of public space events for a couple years now and  found my fair share while living in Toronto. Many of the events held up north bring in retired NASA scientists or students/professors at University of Toronto.

When moving to California, I had hoped to continue this nerdy fascination. What I think was slightly more common to be obsessed with in Toronto is something I am not quite as loud about while living in California. I think people are super *cool* here, and while I am still finding my tribe, I am not eased enough in my network to lay out all of my strange obsessions. Give it a month.

Color me stupefied when I realized that the Jet Propulsion Lab was down in Pasadena. I know, for someone who is supposedly obsessed I should have been aware of this. In my defense, there is a lot to know about the astrological sciences.

Allowing my excitement to bubble over, I looked up the first public event they held, which was Walking on Mars, a discussion on virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) for the purposes of Mars exploration and understanding.

At the talk, there was a Project Lead on the VR Mars Mapping Project, a User Experience resource, a NASA Scientist, and a Project Manager for the Operations Lab at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).

Going in, I was excited as I always am to hear about space, but I was a bit hesitant on this specific topic.

Things I wrongly assumed going in because I am an ignoramus –

  • This has little functional purpose other than being interesting to the public.
  • Scientists do not actually use this technology.
  • The process behind modeling 3 dimensions from 2D photos is onerous.

By and large, I thought that creating a VR Mars was something that they threw up on a website and wrote a couple articles about to drum up interest in Curiosity’s mission.

What I did not realize was that this has a lot of practical functions. For instance, scientists who work on this project are actually located all over the world. Think talking with coworkers, except every meeting is a conference call.

Surely you have heard of the magic of screen-sharing and the accidental “not on mute” typing, or worst of all the horrendous double echo screech of death that occurs if you dare to call in on a phone AND a computer.

After most conference calls….

Needless to say, it does not encourage oodles of collaboration when everyone sits at their computer and thinks about Mars independently. However, by bringing scientists to “Mars” (a 3D rendering of Mars stitched together from photos taken by Curiosity), you are able to interact and see the environment with fresh perspective.

It brings field testing to astronomical sciences.

The tool used is OnSight, which from the brief technical discussion, is an open-source engine that recreates the photos in as high a resolution as the source and paints texture and depth. Further research says it was a NASA-Microsoft partnership that brought it along, and it utilizes a Holo-Lens mixed reality headset.

Isn’t Curiosity so cute?

The scientist there did say stepping into Mars, a subject she had studied in depth but has never been able to interact with, was surreal. It’s a unique position NASA scientists are in, to attempt to deeply understand something they will probably never touch, smell, or see.

I laughed because many of the questions during the Q&A. were more around “basics of VR” and “really strange public audience questions”. Things like, what stops people from hacking this? Have you deeply studied human gesturing before deciding how to interact with 3D menus? Can you hear things?

I suspect NASA is not doing much development work, and that is largely handled by Microsoft and other partners, which makes them largely at the whim of what can be created for them.

But I took away a couple of things-

  • I am dumb in thinking this was purely a PR stunt, as the mud cracks on Mars were supposedly found during a Mars VR session
  • There are moments of hilarity when NASA scientists are meeting and a person decides to go to the bathroom. Apparently, if not properly prompted and using a avatar, putting down a headset can make it look like someone is concentrating deeply on a rock, which can make the other scientists also investigate this rock. All of the sudden, the world’s most brilliant minds are focused on an inconsequential rock because someone forgot to tell everyone they were going to the bathroom. This actually happened. Supposedly.
  • Right now, they are constrained to stitching together still photos. But how neat would it be if we sent out a rover that could capture video (provided there was enough bandwidth)?
  • NASA people must have to do a lot of public speaking, and they must get really good at answering bizarre questions from the public.

That said, no question should be off limits. I’ll see you all on Mars.

For more information, check out this article or the OpsLab Youtube channel.


Caltech, a total wicked place.




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