NASA tests virtual reality smart glasses for trip to Mars

NASA is testing virtual reality smart glasses that could one day help astronauts as they travel to an asteroid or even Mars.

NASA is testing virtual reality smart glasses that could one day help astronauts as they travel to an asteroid or even Mars.

The space agency is working with Osterhout Design Group (ODG), a San Francisco-based company that develops wearables for enterprises and government use. NASA engineers and astronauts are set to test the company's smart glasses, which are equipped with augmented reality and virtual reality technologies.

"The intended purpose and usefulness of glasses like this are unlimited," said Jay Bolden, a NASA spokesman, in an email to Computerworld. "Advanced glasses could aid in navigation, where cockpit displays are broadcast on the goggles in much the same way fighter pilot heads up displays operate today."

Bolden also noted that astronauts on a journey to an asteroid or Mars could use the smart glasses to access chart, map and technical information, instead of having to carry many pounds of technical journals and papers with them.

"For a two-hour flight on a 737 from Cleveland to Dallas, each pilot carries 15 pounds of manuals and that weight isn't really a big deal in the grand scheme," he noted. "However, for a multiple-week mission to an asteroid or the moon, or a multi-year mission to Mars, every pound saved means additional life-critical supplies -- food, water, oxygen, or fuel -- can be shipped in their place."

The smart glasses also could give more information to NASA engineers and scientists working on Earth.

"Real time applications also include the ability for ground support teams to see first hand what astronauts discover and video," Bolden said. "Instead of bringing a 50-pound boulder back for ground analysis, the astronaut can use glasses to scan, measure and catalog where it was found and then chip off a 5-pound sample for ground analysis."

Evaluating smart glasses isn't a new concept for U.S. agencies.

The U.S. Air Force last spring said it was testing Google Glass with pilots, battlefield coordinators and even medics parachuting into battlefield areas.

Glass, which has had its share of ups and downs, is a prototype of smart eyeglasses that Google has worked on for several years.

The ODG smart glasses, which have been in development for six years, are designed to give users the information they could access on a tablet but by overlaying the information on the lens of the glasses.

The glasses also have positional sensors so the device knows the location of the user and where she is looking.

The glasses, for instance, could enable an astronaut to see repair instructions for equipment while keeping hands free to work on maintenance, according to ODG, which also works with the medical, energy and utilities industries.

"As electronic directions and instructions replace paper checklists and longer duration missions are considered, there is a need for tools that can meet evolving demands," said Lauri Hansen, engineering director at NASA's Johnson Space Center, in a statement. "ODG's technology provides an opportunity to increase space mission efficiencies and we are pleased to explore its potential in human spaceflight while also advancing its use here on Earth."

The glasses are being used in a series of tests at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Astronauts training to live and work on the International Space Station will use the smart glasses to practice maneuvering around the orbiting station. They also will use them to practice for future space walks.

According to Bolden, the ODG glasses will get a weeklong test this summer when astronauts and mission control will work to simulate a mission to another planet.

NASA has been testing and working with virtual reality technology simulations for the past 20 years, Bolden said.

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