Space Station VR Experience Released for Oculus Rift

For now you’ll need one of those pricey headsets, but other versions are on the way.

A view from Mission: ISS, the best space-related VR yet. (Oculus)
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We’ve been waiting for this one.

Last week Oculus unveiled Mission: ISS, a free VR simulation of the International Space Station for the Oculus Rift, produced with the help of NASA and the Canadian and European space agencies.

That’s great news, with just a couple of caveats.

This is the most detailed, realistic space-related VR experience produced to date, and it should be. Magnopus, the Los Angeles-based company that created the app, had the full cooperation of NASA, including astronauts who suggested small touches based on their own knowledge of the station.

The designers started with the same DOUG graphics software that NASA’s VR Lab uses to create the simulations used for astronaut training. Then, says Ben Grossmann of Magnopus, “We added a lot more detail…and removed some engineering data that wasn’t relevant to the consumer experience. We also spent quite a bit of time expanding on the ‘lived in’ nature of things.”

The visuals are high-fidelity computer renderings of the station interior and exterior, not photos—at least for now. “We already have actual 360º imagery of all the locations in the station ready to go,” says Grossmann, but all the licensing agreements weren’t done in time for this initial release. “As soon as we’re cleared to use that content, we flip a switch and it’s all there,” he says.

The imagery they’ll use was taken with existing HD cameras on the station (rather than 360° cameras), which required extra work. The scenes were “shot section-by-section and stitched into a 360° back at Magnopus,” says Grossmann.

Future releases of Mission: ISS will include live screens, Grossmann says. “The ambition that we’re working towards is being able to have a live 360º video stream from the station incorporated in the experience. Live Earth imagery pulled from satellites in real time are also part of the plan. 

The producers hope to release a version of the experience for Gear VR, he says, but that depends in part on how the Rift version (which uses both the Rift headset and Oculus Touch for hand movements) is received.

It would be a shame if Mission: ISS ends with the Rift version, because that would greatly limit the number of people who get to see it. Google Cardboard users number in the tens of millions, and Samsung reports that 5 million of its ($50 to $100) Gear VR headsets have sold. In comparison, only about 400,000 people have bought the much more expensive Oculus Rift.

If you don’t have one yourself, you can watch videos showing the game play for Mission: ISS here and here.

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