BEN SULLIVAN Staff Reporter
One of the biggest barriers to exploring and exploiting outer space is the years of planning that’s required to get a mission off the ground.
But what if that time, from concept to lift-off, were cut to mere weeks?
That’s what NASA engineers at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are in the process of achieving.
The vehicle being used is a virtual reality “environment,” dubbed a design holodeck.
The holodeck is a way to let people “be there,” even when they’re not, by melding the relatively familiar worlds of virtual reality, computer-aided design and the common conference call.
While intended for designing and executing trips to outer space, the holodeck has implications for fields as diverse as medicine, manufacturing and entertainment, NASA officials and analysts say.
“In the future (this technology) will be commonplace,” said Behrokh Khoshnevis, director of the Univeristy of Southern California’s manufacturing engineering program.
Surgeons, for example, could operate on patients remotely, using robots to actually cut and stitch. Firefighters or deep-sea petroleum explorers likewise could send rovers into conditions that would be impossible for a human to enter.
In the coming months, officials at JPL and NASA’s Ames Research Center in Northern California will begin approaching private industry for potential research partners.
“It’s going to be absolutely huge,” predicts Charles Palm, president of Synthonics Inc., a Westlake Village-based firm that makes 3-D rendering software used in the film industry and dentistry.
But the initial applications will be space-related.
Imagine a NASA engineer is working in Pasadena on a heat shield for the next Mars lander. Her colleague in San Francisco, who makes the bolts that hold the shield in place, says something is out of whack between the two sets of designs, potentially threatening the shield’s stability in flight.
Hashing the problem out over the telephone can help, but “a lot of information simply doesn’t get across, even in video conferencing,” said John Peterson, deputy manager of JPL’s network engineering section.
With the envisioned holodeck, the remotely located engineers could each slip on a pair of video goggles and emerge together in a virtual laboratory where the shield and bolts are visually rendered three-dimensionally.
Though actually miles apart, in the immersive design environment the two could tinker with the heat shield, adjusting its size and dimensions with their hands or through voice commands, while a monitoring system records the changes.
When the pieces fit correctly, the holodeck would generate updated blueprints for the parts.
As science-fictional as the holodeck might sound (its name comes from a virtual rec room featured on “Star Trek”), the individual technologies that would go into a prototype already exist.
“So far, we’re just riding the technology wave,” Peterson explained.
What’s needed to make the holodeck a reality, he said, are software and telecommunications advances to make the experience “seamless.” Two of the biggest hurdles, he said, are transferring the vast amounts of data over telecommunications lines and processing the information fast enough to allow real-time adjustments.
“The challenge here is to make it all interactive. You’d prefer not to wait for the computer (to re-draw images),” Peterson said. “You would like to be able to interact with the system on the fly.”
Working with programmers at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Peterson and a handful of JPL engineers are attempting to accomplish that right now with roughly $2 million in funding approved by NASA in January.
“We’ve made simulators for years,” said Steve Ellis, an Ames researcher working on the project. “Now what a lot of people like us are interested in doing is integrating the different parts of our computer tools.”
The teams hope to have a data backbone and functioning prototype in place for further refinement by year’s end. To help them accomplish that, they are designing a theoretical mission to Mars that will serve as a working test of the system. Though not actually commissioned by NASA, the theoretical mission is in line with the agency’s current desire for smaller and cheaper missions, Peterson said.
The mock mission would portend to launch a rocket to Mars, then landing a micro-spacecraft on the planet’s surface. Upon landing, the spacecraft would either soft-land or burrow into the soil and begin sending data back to Earth.
That information would, in turn, be fed into the holodeck to let scientists see and even touch virtual renderings of what the spacecraft encounters.
A more ambitious version of the mission being discussed by the JPL team would involve landing multiple, mobile crafts on Mars to let researchers walk or even fly around a virtual rendering of the planet.
Instead of goggles or video screens, the researchers say, an actual room equipped with holographic projectors could provide a true 3-D environment. That display technology, however, remains five to 15 years away.
The use of virtual reality will grow exponentially, Palm asserts, as ever more powerful personal computers make the intensive number-crunching involved more accessible to end users.
To that end, Silicon Graphics, the leader in high-end graphics hardware and software, announced last week that it will for the first time sell a 3-D Internet graphics package to run in the Windows environment.
“You’re not going to have to go out and buy a $100,000 workstation,” Palm said. “You’re going to be able to do it on a $2,000 machine.”
Despite the growing enthusiasm for virtual reality, there remain those who say for some applications, “virtual” will always remain second-best.
“I’m a believer that is the way to go,” USC’s Khoshnevis said. “But I share with a lot of skeptics the belief that meeting people face to face, having a paper and pencil between them, is still the most powerful communication arrangement we have. You can’t replace that.”