Sunday, November 5, 2017

Google's latest VR project that allows you to take a walk on Mars

August 6, 2012 was a rare day on planet Earth when the hunger for exploration triumphed over political conflicts. NASA's aptly titled Curiosity rover (a planet surface explorer) touched the surface of Mars after an eight-month long journey from Earth. The mission was to seek signs of life beyond Earth and to find if Mars is or ever was suitable for life. For the past five (Earth) years, Curiosity has sent back data including images of the Red Planet's terrain, which has helped scientists enhance their understanding of Mars, and also prepare for future missions.

Now, to reach a wider audience, the space agency has collaborated with Google to create an immersive 3D experience using Curiosity's images. The project called Access Mars is along the lines of the several virtual touring projects on Google Expeditions, a VR app for smart phones. Except that, this time the experience is extra-terrestrial.
The home page on the website that opens on your computer, shows an artist's impression of Curiosity sitting on the real Martian terrain. Heightening the experience is a compelling background score that takes you through the history of this mission. Click on the "Enter 360" button to start your tour. The tour begins with a line sketch of the ATLAS-V rocket taking off with Curiosity, followed by its landing on Mars, using the "sky-crane" technique for the first time.

The sequence of movement is interspersed with texts, that provide information and context to the entire exercise. While NASA has lovely animations of the landing sequence, the designers of Access Mars have taken a minimalist approach, so as not to overwhelm the viewer with complex space equipment visuals before the actual tour begins. After a brief intro, the tourist is greeted by a three-point simple instruction window on how to "access mars". You can navigate to any area you see on screen just by clicking on the points of interest marked on the terrain. You click on a spot of your choice and the area opens up for a 3D exploration. There is also a map to take you through famous Martian points such as Pahrump Hills, the Marias Pass and Murray Buttes and so on. Currently, the project offers five way-points to explore. These are spots where Curiosity has performed its experiments to understand the seemingly harsh and barren terrain better.

A still from Access Mars
A still from Access Mars

The best thing about Access Mars is that it enables VR viewing in our web browsers sans VR glasses or extra apps. The non-intrusive voiceover by NASA scientist Katie Morgan lends a human touch to this extra-terrestrial experience. And, in case you get lost while exploring, unlike Matt Damon, you can easily find your way back by clicking on the "Map" icon that floats over the horizon of the terrain. On the whole, Access Mars is a great dimension to Google's Expeditions app. The visual quality cannot be compared with the richness of Machu-Pichu or the Taj Mahal VR tours, but the feeling of following the trail of a man-made object, 55 million kilometres away from home, has got to blow your mind.

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The author is a former post-doctoral research scientist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research


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