If you’re like me, you’ve wanted one of those HoloLens headsets since Microsoft first went public with the technology in 2015. With a pair of lightweight goggles that overlays an augmented reality scene on the real world, HoloLens lets you put yourself—and others—in almost any virtual setting, from the Roman Colosseum to the moon.
Other than tech journalists and NASA scientists, however, hardly anyone has had a chance to play with HoloLens. (Microsoft helped JPL build its own Mars-centric version called OnSight.) There’s still no consumer version of the headset, and even a developer edition will set you back at least $3,000.
Victor Luo feels your pain.
A technologist with JPL’s Ops Lab, Luo has helped to bring HoloLens out of the inventor’s workshop and into the public arena, even before it goes mainstream. At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center in Florida last year, up to 10 people at a time could put on HoloLens headsets and virtually roam the Martian surface together, in a temporary exhibit called Destination Mars.
Now comes the next step, what Luo calls “a kind of progression of the reachability of this application.” The new experience, called Access Mars, is free to anyone on the web, and is compatible with either of the two main affordable (under $100) VR platforms: Gear VR and Google Daydream.
Like a lot of today’s immersive experiences, Access Mars is more a preview of things to come than an oh-my-god-I’m-really-on-Mars epiphany. But it’s an important step along the road to virtual presence on other worlds, and beats any previous method of making you feel like you’re actually there.
I tried Access Mars in both Daydream and Gear VR, and each took a bit of figuring out. Rather than download a standalone app from the Google Play store the way you normally do with Daydream, you just navigate to https://accessmars.withgoogle.com/ in Chrome (provided your phone has an up-to-date version of the browser that supports the new WebVR platform).
When I tried Access Mars on Gear VR (which I slightly prefer to Daydream), I couldn’t get the page to load in the Samsung Internet browser, but it worked smoothly in the Oculus browser.
The experience itself is nicely designed—simple and intuitive. You begin at the Curiosity rover’s landing site, from which point you can look out over the Martian landscape in all directions. In a VR headset you see the surface in 3D, and can immediately tell how hilly and rugged the terrain is (that’s the main advantage—and it’s a big one—of using a headset rather than a 2D computer screen). The imagery loads faster than I was expecting, considering that this is actual Curiosity data. But not everything is in color. Images taken by the rover’s lower-resolution navigation cameras appear in grayscale.
Dotting the landscape are several billboards that help you understand what you’re seeing. There’s also a map that can transport you to any of five Martian locations, all real places visited by Curiosity. The last one, to me, is the best: the rover’s current location (or close to current—Luo says the imagery will be updated every couple of weeks or so). At any of the five sites, you can point your controller anywhere—say, the other side of a hill—and click to go there.
This starts to approach what I’ve always imagined for a virtual Mars experience—the ability to wander around freely and explore the planet for myself. The image resolution isn’t as good as what you’d see with a HoloLens. In fact, it’s not as good as simply viewing a 4K Curiosity image in a low cost VR headset. But the designers of Access Mars were trading image sharpness for loading time, among other things. And this is actual spacecraft data you’re roaming around in, not a static 2D photo. It’s a good compromise.
As this capability improves, and it certainly will, Mars exploration will change its character, and the public will be able to participate more directly in NASA’s missions, playing around “inside” real scenes as if they really were standing on the surface of another world.
Where does that leave other VR experiences that try to simulate, or even gamify, Mars exploration? Some of these are just okay, some a little better than okay. Hello Mars, for example, is a nicely designed $2.99 app for Daydream that shows us what a future human Mars expedition might look like. The graphics are nice, even if the gray dials and switches in the Mars-craft look dated. (Apollo was 50 years ago, folks.) But the scenery is fake. So is Access Mars, in a way. But with these new immersive media blurring the line between reality and artifice more convincingly every day, I prefer my fakery at least to be based on something real.