Scientists and consumers could collaborate on NASA research projects with the advent of consumer-grade virtual reality headsets like Project Morpheus, says SCEA’s Anton Mikhailov.
Sony introduced its VR headset, codenamed Project Morpheus, at GDC last week, also announcing its partnership with NASA during the reveal event. The two parties have been sharing knowledge around virtual reality tech for some time, Sony learning from NASA’s military-grade simulations and NASA taking advantage of Sony’s cheaper, consumer-grade tech to offer its scientists and academics access to virtual reality at a fraction of the previous cost.
And Sony’s bid to popularise virtual reality by bringing it to the masses could yet feed back into NASA’s own research, says SCEA senior software engineer Anton Mikhailov. “They’re excited about regular people following along with the NASA scientists, using similar hardware to explore the same thing scientists are exploring,” he told us at GDC last week. “Who knows, it could even crowdsource some of this stuff. Imagine if they collected photo satellite data from all around Mars – it’d take a lot of time for them to sift through all of that, so what if you could get the masses of gamers on PlayStation to help you out.
“Gamers are good at finding stuff – you give someone a VR headset and you say – ‘find water on Mars – go’. They get a ton of data and we help out science. That’s personally what gets me excited about collaborating with someone like NASA, and obviously there are other collaborations – virtual tourism, museums, all of that stuff. There are some very exciting possibilities.”
As Facebook’s $2 billion swoop for Oculus Rift has proven this week, using virtual reality to play videogames is just the start for the medium. As Mikhailov suggests, its wider applications are, in many ways, the more exciting part of the technology – and secretly, perhaps Sony knows that selling and licensing Project Morpheus out to businesses and institutions will be a more lucrative use of the tech.
It’s still a rather distant prospect for players, but Sony has already set about exploring the multitude of other ways in which its tech can be utilised, starting with its NASA partnership. “A lot of people have wanted VR to happen, not just gamers,” said Mikhailov. “NASA is an exciting partner because they’ve been doing virtual reality internally forever, basically. They’ve always researched how they can use it for science, astronaut training, pilot training and so on. The thing about working with them is that they have a lab full of this stuff – they’ve done a lot of it already and what’s encouraging is that they’re quite impressed with what we’ve done so far.”
So what are the differences between Sony’s Morpheus tech and NASA’s own? “Well, it’s not a million dollars, so that’s kind of the difference,” said Mikhailov. “It’s interesting because a lot of the old virtual reality stuff was quite bulky, extremely expensive, all military-grade. Now in the last few years because a lot of things have driven down the price of displays and computation down, we’re able to do things that we just weren’t able to pull off in the eighties and nineties unless they were in a military institution. It’s different technology but it’s delivering an experience that’s very similar to a proper simulator.”
Making virtual reality cheaper and more accessible to a far larger number of NASA staff has allowed its scientists to experiment with simulation a lot more, says Mikhailov, though NASA’s own high-end military grade VR will still be used for training pilots, astronauts, medics and the like. “For that kind of experience you need something that has to be completely bulletproof,” he said. “You don’t want anybody to get hurt…in games when you mess up or the tracking goes wrong it’s fine but, for example, in the medical world the tolerances are different, so on that level the technology is different – there’s a gap.
“What they’re excited about is for their institutions. If they want a scientist to use their VR system, it’s a million dollar system – they have one of them, and one of the scientists has to get a time share on that system, they have to sign up, get a grant, whatever. With consumer VR hardware they can get one for every one of their scientists and now, yes, they’re not having the ‘NASA experience’ but they’re having something close, and they’re having it on a wider scale. It’s a depth versus breadth approach.”