Virtual reality is already being used on the ground to help prepare astronauts for the rigors of space, although now HTC says it’s sending its standalone VR headset Vive Focus 3 to the International Space Station (ISS) to help support the mental health of astronauts during their mission.

To help alleviate stress, and maybe even combat homesickness, a specially-fitted Vive Focus 3 will make its way to the ISS starting on November 7th as a part of a resupply mission.

The company says in a blogpost that it will be used by Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen, Commander of Expedition 70 on the ISS, who will run a mental health initiative created by XRHealth and Nord-Space Aps.

Like all modern VR headsets, Vive Focus 3’s room-positioning system wasn’t built with the microgravity of space in mind, however the company settled on a solution that’s sometimes used in the world of location-based entertainment, such as roller coasters and flight simulators.

Image courtesy HTC

Using a controller as an anchor point allows the headset to orient itself spatially, giving Mogensen a fixed reference point as ‘the ground’, presumably leaving the other controller to operate the headset’s user interface.

The initiative’s main goal is one of VR-based therapy, which is designed to give astronauts a break from the isolating environment and allow them to be transported to another place via immersive 360-degree videos.

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It’s set to include videos such as a sunset atop a picturesque hill, a mountain path in Europe, swimming with dolphins, a tour of the western coast of Denmark, and a nature hike through the wetlands.

“Astronauts are essentially isolated during their missions for months and years at a time and are confined to small spaces with limited contact with friends and family,” says Per Lundahl Thomsen, Chief Technology Officer at Nord-Space Aps. “Creating a virtual platform that addresses their mental health needs while in isolation is imperative for them to maintain a healthy lifestyle when they return. We partnered with companies that provide the most advanced technologies that could be adapted for space to provide the most beneficial experience for our astronauts.”

While 360 videos are generally less immersive than dedicated virtual reality simulations—even 3D 360 videos lack support for 6DOF spatial movement—it’s certainly sounds like a well-calculated stab at putting the minimum viable solution in the hands of astronauts to see just how much VR can help alleviate the daily stressors of working and living aboard the ISS.

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Well before the first modern XR products hit the market, Scott recognized the potential of the technology and set out to understand and document its growth. He has been professionally reporting on the space for nearly a decade as Editor at Road to VR, authoring more than 3,500 articles on the topic. Scott brings that seasoned insight to his reporting from major industry events across the globe.
  • Christian Schildwaechter

    VR in space is challenging. Fixed reference controllers are also used for motion cancelation in 6DoF simulators, to distinguish between users turning their head, and the platform turning users. They probably have to strap in the astronaut too, as anything not fixed will inevitably spin and drift away. “Grounding” could also solve problems with using the second controller. Engadget suggested Walkabout Mini Golf as a mental health activity on ISS, but when swinging the arm to hit a ball, inertia would spin a floating astronaut the opposite way.

    There are many technical issues: on earth, lower density makes hot air escape upwards, with cool air streaming into the HMD. With no “up” in microgravity, warm air would create a bubble, but the ventilation system on ISS is designed to handle that. They use lots of hot electronics, so cranking up the Focus 3 fans and let the AC handle the rest should work. It’s still wise to start with 3DoF 360° videos, not requiring much movement, interaction or power, and those should look nice with 116°h/96°v FoV @2.5K.

    NASA uses Vive Pro headsets for training etc., and built their own VR HMDs in the 80s. Googling their 1988 “Virtual Interface Environment Workstations” paper gives a fascinating peek into the history of VR. Thanks to SpaceX, launch price per weight had fallen dramatically since then. Getting the HMD up 400km to ISS should only come to 2x the cost of Focus 3 plus eye tracking module, with more for packaging. Adapting the tracking, creating custom software and NASA safety procedures will add 100x that, but if it works, it could be well worth it. VR therapy can be very effective at low cost. For example, burn victims with large parts of their skin destroyed experience massive pain reduction in icy VR environments. AFAIK not (only) due to placebo effects, but because the brain physically closes pores and reduces blood flow in the skin in anticipation of heat loss due to cold, making the skin “numb”.

  • dialmove

    Meanwhile on Earth, we put on VR helmets to imagine what it’s like to be at the ISS.

  • Andrew Jakobs

    If current inside out tracking is difficult, why not use lighthouse tracking? But then again, if you are already weightless it will be hard to play a game that happens on a gravity based world like earth, unless you strap the person down like they already do for the treadmill.
    I don’t see really why though why inside out tracking would not work, if you setup some fixed markers.

    • XRC

      Lighthouse tracked object using 9 axis IMU requires gravity (1g = 9.8 m/s2) for acceleration measurement. Example of output using lighthouse console:

      1h> imustats imu 65110 rate 249.2Hz interval 4.0ms sigma 0.000ms grav infm/s/s sigma -nan(ind)

      gyro -0.04 +0.01 -0.01 accel +0.21 -2.55 -9.75
      gyro -0.05 +0.01 -0.01 accel +0.24 -2.44 -9.79
      gyro -0.07 +0.01 -0.00 accel +0.26 -2.43 -9.79
      gyro -0.08 +0.00 +0.00 accel +0.25 -2.41 -9.71
      gyro -0.09 +0.00 +0.01 accel +0.29 -2.41 -9.65
      gyro -0.11 +0.01 +0.00 accel +0.28 -2.36 -9.72
      gyro -0.12 +0.01 +0.00 accel +0.31 -2.33 -9.66
      gyro -0.13 +0.01 +0.00 accel +0.34 -2.28 -9.62

      • Christian Schildwaechter

        Technically they don’t require gravity. An accelerometer just reports the force exerted by gravity when in rest, so the IMU subtracts that value before sending the data to the SoC. You could use the IMUs in zero gravity, but you’d have to “subtract” the upwards-force the IMU has added to remove gravity from the data.

        The gyroscope uses inertia on oscillating objects, the magnetometer the earth’s magnetic field, neither of which should depend on gravity. In theory you could use only the gyroscope data for 3DoF 360° videos on ISS without correcting for zero gravity, but IMUs usually do sensor data fusion to increase accuracy, so one would have to alter the IMUs firmware for it to properly work in space.

        • XRC

          Thanks for your reply, did some further reading on the ISS.

          It seems XR is already used in space, I’ve just read about “Sidekick” using hololens for complex repairs back in February 2016 prior to its commercial release.

          ESA /CNES “Pilote” using Rift CV1 to control robotic arms and remote vehicles

          “Immersive experience” using quest on CEVIS (exercise bicycle)

          JAXA using AR for T2 maintenance tasks

          NASA using Hololens to assist astronaut in updating hardware inside CAL module

          “time perception” using Rift CV1 to examine perception of space/time in microgravity

          ESA “grip” and “grasp” investigations using VR headset with custom grip controllers

          NASA “Vection” project using VR headset

      • CrusaderCaracal

        Neeerrrd

  • CrusaderCaracal

    Cool

  • xyzs

    All these billions allocated to the space budget, and the equipment is
    sent in the shoddiest case I’ve ever seen. I mean, just look at this
    dreadful stitching. Even a dollar store would reject it for not meeting
    their standards.

    • kool

      I bet you can put your headset in the microwave and it still works in that case