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Humans have dreamed of exploring the stars since we first looked up at the sky. Step by step, technology is bringing us closer to that dream - and virtual reality is now poised to play an important role in our spacefaring future.
That’s why we’re excited that HTC VIVE, in partnership with XRHealth and Nord-Space Aps,is sending the first virtual reality headset for mental health usage to the International Space Station (ISS) to support astronauts during their important European Space Agency (ESA) Huginn mission.
On November 7th, SpaceX CRS-29 will launch a resupply mission to the International Space Station, and included in this cargo is a special VIVE Focus 3. The headset will be used by ESA's 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.
While people often envision outer space as giving astronauts a sense of boundlessness and peace, the reality is never that straightforward. Astronauts are elite professionals, chosen for their skills and ability to handle a harsh and unforgiving environment, where every second counts.
Astronauts live in challenging surroundings - a relatively isolated and cramped space during their long missions. For months at a time astronauts live in a noisy, clinical set of rooms without ‘natural’ light where they are surrounded by the constant hum of machines, screens, and electronic devices. Privacy is limited, sleeping spaces are cramped, and meals can include freeze-dried food and recycled water. On top of this, it is a highly stressful environment, and the crew needs to be ready to act quickly if an alarm sounds, and every day is packed full of scheduled activities and experiments to maximize their time.
For every minute of serenity, gazing at the endless beauty of space, or looking down at the majesty of the earth, there are ten minutes of stress.
To help with this, HTC VIVE, XRHealth, and Nord-Space Aps partnered to create a virtual assistance mental balance initiative that will run on the VIVE Focus 3. The main goal of the VR-based therapy is to give Huginn-mission astronauts a break from the isolating environment and allow them to be transported to another place.
Designing content and configuring a VR headset for microgravity posed complex challenges. Driven by HTC VIVE’s culture of innovation, the team found unique solutions that have an impact beyond Space travel.
VIVE Focus 3 Meets Microgravity
Historically, VR headsets in microgravity environments posed multiple challenges around tracking and orientation. VR headsets on Earth rely on gravity vectors to align orientation, but those don’t exist in Space and the lack of gravity inherently creates a drift to the point where a VR headset is unstable. The microgravity environment paired with spacecraft mechanics causes constant jittering, rolling, and drifting of content which can lead to motion sickness and leave astronauts unable to read, see, or control the content in a headset.
HTC VIVE set out to solve these challenges with unique solutions, configuring the VIVE Focus 3 headset to the microgravity conditions of space. Inspired by a range of solutions in our industry-leading Location Based Software Suite (LBSS), our team developed a special tracking methodology which utilized a controller as an anchor point.
You can actually find this solution in arcades and businesses all over the world. On Earth we call it SimulatorVR mode, and it’s used for VR roller coasters and immersive motion simulators as well as comprehensive flight training and advanced driving simulations.
In SimulatorVR mode, a VIVE Focus 3 controller or VIVE Wrist Tracker is fixed to a set position and acts as an anchor, telling the headset where to base all it’s movement from. On the ISS, this replaces the missing gravitational field and allows for content to stay aligned and stable in microgravity.
In addition to tracking and alignment, maintaining power onboard presented another obstacle. As you’d expect, it’s vital to minimize risk on the ISS, and this includes batteries. In order to ensure the power source was consistent and capable, HTC VIVE conducted many tests before developing a way to use the ISS’s power source as the best fit for the mission.
VR Content for Mental Health
The VR therapy on the VIVE Focus 3 headset includes immersive 360° videos that act as powerful tools for achieving various clinical goals in mental health, particularly in the realms of relaxation and meditation. ISS Commander Andreas Mogensen picked serene and captivating scenes himself from a selection. Andreas will dive with dolphins, watch a sunset over a mountain ridge, listen to birds singing, sit by the North Sea, and more:
VR on The Ground
While this is the first time a VIVE Focus 3 will be used in Space, it’s already being used on the ground by the ESA and NASA. Recently, VIVE Pro 2 and VIVE Trackers were used in the NASA astronaut training for some of the mission specialists currently on the ISS, including Andreas, at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre.
In preparation for the Huginn mission, Andreas used the VIVE Pro 2 to train for spacewalk emergencies. When astronauts perform a spacewalk, they go into their spacesuit, climb out the airlock and stay tethered to the Space Station with a cable. The virtual experience on VIVE Pro 2 simulated astronauts being “thrown” off the Space Station and required them to use the ‘Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue’ (SAFER) system, a small jet-pack, to push them back to the Space Station. VIVE trackers allowed for accurate tracking of the astronaut’s hands and body as they went through training simulations, making them as accurate as possible
HTC VIVE is also making a demonstratable impact each day on Earth across industries and continues to show the potential of VR. This ranges from integrating the VIVE XR Elite headsets into senior care communities with MyndVR, to using VIVE Focus 3 to train surgeons for operations at NYU Langone, to helping design post-op recovery rooms with our headsets at Benioff Children’s Hospital.
We’re hugely proud of everyone involved in this project aboard the International Space Station. From our own R&D team, through to our friends at Nord-Space Aps, XRHealth, the European Space Agency, NASA, and many more.
As HTC VIVE looks ahead, the journey continues to push the boundaries of what is possible for humanity with the support of technology. HTC VIVE’s work on this project is a testament to the power of innovation, determination, collaboration with partners, and the belief that technology can shape a better future.