NASA-backed ‘Mars 2030’ is a Breathtakingly Real Slice of Martian Landscape the Size of ‘Skyrim’

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Houston We Have a (Virtual) Problem

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Steve Wozniak does a live demo of ‘Mars 2030’ for the first time during the GTC 2016 keynote. | Photo courtesy NVIDIA (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At GTC 2016 last week, NVIDIA showed off Mars 2030 during the event’s opening keynote. On stage in front of several thousand GTC attendees, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang introduced the experience as a detailed recreation of the surface of Mars. To drive his point home, he invited (via video feed) former Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to be the first human to set foot on (virtual) Mars.

Donning an HTC Vive and stepping into the rover inside Mars 2030, Wozniak began to maneuver around the Martian landscape. The sequence went on for a few minutes and on more than one occasion, Wozniak said he was feeling dizzy—basically the last thing a VR developer wants to hear during a public demo of their work, let alone one being watched by several thousand people.

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See Also: 7 Ways to Move Users Around in VR Without Making Them Sick

For the record, I felt little to no nausea during my time in Mars 2030, which surprised me given that it implements a standard twin-stick FPS control scheme, which is known as potentially dizzying to some (myself included). I asked Julian Reyes, Fusion’s Lead VR Producer who is spearheading Mars 2030, how he felt about Wozniak’s reaction.

“At first I don’t even think he was quite familiar with what he was about to get into, because he grabbed the controller backwards,” said Reyes. “We wanted to leave it at a state of spontaneity and so he had no idea what he was walking into as soon as he put the headset on… at least on our end, we’re hitting the framerate at 90 FPS. Maybe some of the motion of being able to drive the rover sideways [a feature of the rover prototype] could have made him a little bit dizzy… none of the people who I’ve seen try it get dizzy.”

“I think that breaks immersion,” Reyes told me when I why Mars 2030 doesn’t use any tricks like snap turning or blinking to improve comfort in VR for people like Wozniak.

Given what Fusion has managed to achieve in Mars 2030, it would be a shame if comfort alone was a limiting factor in how many people get to enjoy it. With many months remaining before launch, Reyes and his team may implement such options yet.

More Than a Tourist

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So what do you actually do in Mars 2030, other than being occasionally overcome with the feeling that you’re actually standing on another planet? I got a look at an early mission among several you’ll be able to undertake during your time on the Martian surface.

Starting at the base, my task was to explore an immense lava tube. It wasn’t terribly far from the site, but certainly too far to walk. Luckily there’s a rover parked at the base—identical to a prototype that NASA is considering sending to Mars; I hopped inside and began following a waymarker toward the lava tube. The path spiraled out from the base location and took me through surprisingly volatile terrain.

Prior to being on the Red Planet via Mars 2030, I had only ever seen surface photos of Mars taken by robotic rovers. These generally showed the rovers in the middle of a big, flat, rocky desert, and that’s all I knew Mars to look like. Yet here, as I drove the rover from base, my perspective of Mars was completely rewritten as I realized for the first time ever just how harsh the planet’s terrain could be.

“NASA doesn’t necessarily target areas that might be a little more dangerous for the [robotic] rover, but all of [the big formations show] up clear as day on satellite,” Sonnekalb said. “Because you have a third of the gravity, mountains don’t settle as much and you get these ridiculously deep canyons and high mountains.”

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I wound through gulleys and climbed steep inclines as I followed the trail set before me. After a few minutes of driving I emerged from a small valley to see a positively massive crater that stretched out what seemed to be at least a mile in front of me. My path would take me straight down the side of the crater; as I drove I couldn’t help but peek out the rover’s window to stare in awe at what had formed within the crater: huge, rippling hills showed evidence of Mars’ once highly active geologic processes. Knowing that what I was looking at were actual features of the Martian landscape, briefly brought back that feeling of actually being on the planet.

As I reached the end of the mission path, I exited the rover standing before a positively massive cavern—a lava tube, to be precise—that seemed wide enough for a plane to fly through. I had absolutely no idea that such features existed on Mars, and even if I had, I would have never guessed they’d be so huge. And yet here I was, peering inside of this massive natural formation—one that NASA may actually send people to explore one day, following the same virtual path that I took to get here.

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  • visual

    Anyone else find it numerous that someone already took the name Mars 2030 on Steam?

  • REP

    If you’re development for Vive, why wouldn’t you want to use motion controller? It doesn’t make sense to use gamepad.

    • Harry Hol

      To support both, they need to go with the sure thing.

      • Massimo

        “Thanks Oculus…”

        • yag

          Yeah thanks Oculus because we probably wouldn’t have the Vive without them.

          • JoeD

            Boy do you fanboys love to give credit where its not due. Sorry, but both Valve had been working on VR before that Palmer kid got involved.

            http://www.engadget.com/2016/03/18/htc-vive-an-oral-history/

            “But while all of this was happening, Valve was already at work on its own solution.”

            What you wouldn’t have is Oculus giving a shite about room scale and motion control.

          • yag

            I already answered to one, I won’t feed another one, sorry.

  • TaxPayer

    I want this

  • Leo Richard Comerford

    NASA’s been working on this idea for quite a long time: https://youtu.be/JRMrplVubVI?t=357 .

  • bladestorm91

    I hope there’s going to be more AEIOU

  • jlschmugge

    On why they aren’t using “comfort” crap: “Breaks the immersion”. I just fell in love with this developer. Not to mention a VR Mars simulation based on real data is a fantasy come to life.

  • Mike

    These are some of the most realistic visuals I’ve ever seen rendered in realtime. Most of the time it’s hard to even tell it’s not real.

  • Graham J ⭐️

    “they plan to scale things down so that the experience can still run on more common VR hardware like the GTX”

    The most common VR hardware is a Samsung phone. Hopefully they will scale it down enough to run on Gear VR so we don’t need $2k of equipment to view it.

    • yag

      Most common VR hardware ON PC. You won’t have this kind of open-world experience on mobile. Not before long…

    • JoeD

      They didn’t say MOST common, they said MORE common. If they scale it down for the Gear you’ll be looking at a mostly flat plane. Fun.

      • Graham J ⭐️

        I wasn’t nit picking semantics, I just meant that 970-level GPUs are still a relative rarity compared to mobile VR systems so it would be good for viewership if they could stream lower poly versions. Render distance would suffer for sure but nearby meshes could still be decent.

        • NeoTechni

          Hell, I have a 650Ti

  • Skies on Mars are blue, just like the Earth, unless there is alot of dust in the air. Well Mars does have dust storms on a global level on occasions, it’s not always “dusty” out. I’m not sure why NASA likes to put out these “Always Orange” pictures, other then it’s something the public expects, and people have accused them of faking their pictures. In their actual color, it kinda looks like high deserts on Earth, not very “otherworldly”.

    And the blueshift isn’t cause by water in the atmosphere, on Earth or anywhere else. Atmospheric gases, well transparent, still scatter light.

  • metanurb

    Sunset’s on Mars are blue tinted. It’s the one thing that annoyed me a bit in “The Martian” movie lol. And now maybe also this “Mars 2030”, unless they fix it (but I’ll still look forward to testing it, hope it works with DK2 as well, though maybe not without those Oculus controllers?)

    From the all-knowing wikipedia:

    “Around sunset and sunrise the Martian sky is pinkish-red in color, but in the vicinity of the setting sun or rising sun it is blue. This is the exact opposite of the situation on Earth. However, during the day the sky is a yellow-brown “butterscotch” color.[3] On Mars, Rayleigh scattering is usually a very small effect. It is believed that the color of the sky is caused by the presence of 1% by volume of magnetite in the dust particles. Twilight lasts a long time after the Sun has set and before it rises, because of all the dust in Mars’s atmosphere. At times, the Martian sky takes on a violet color, due to scattering of light by very small water ice particles in clouds”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astronomy_on_Mars

    Another link:

    http://www.universetoday.com/120353/what-makes-mars-sunsets-different-from-earths/

    • Albert Walzer

      i also read somewhere (back in the time when the first two rovers were fresh) that everything on mars looks very desaturated in reality. They always had mentions on their fotos, too that they are recolored for “earthlike” light, because the real photos border on black and white or something. It would be really cool if the devs would include a “real mode” with all those aspects in mind….

  • RoJoyInc

    I’d buy another 980ti if the software is REALLY REAL. I want the ultimate experience.

  • Geffen Avraham

    Dual GTX 980 Tis? Who do they think will buy this?

  • Jens

    Soo, what happened? Why is it not released yet? Was it cut ?