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Is there a virtual Mars in our future?

NASA / GSFC

An artist's concept shows how a crew aboard an orbiting station could control robotic operations on Mars, ranging from real-time rover trips to rocket launches bringing shipments to the station.


Imagine a day when virtual reality gets so good that you could take a computer-generated walk on the Martian surface, right here on Earth. Or imagine having a space station in Martian orbit that can control robots down on the Red Planet in real time, just as today's drone pilots control winged robots that are flying half a world away.

Science fiction? Today, yes. But someday, it could be science fact. At least that's the way Caltech astronomer George Djorgovski and other virtual-world researchers see it.

"I certainly think that virtual presence will play a significant role in space missions in the future, just because it’s so much easier to send a robot than to keep people alive" in the space environment, he told me. "That is something we can speculate about."

Djorgovski and I will be speculating about this and other prospects for immersive virtual reality tonight on "Virtually Speaking Science," a talk show that takes place in the Second Life virtual world as well as on the Web via BlogTalkRadio. The hourlong show gets started at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT / SLT). If you miss hearing it live, never fear: The podcast will be archived on BlogTalkRadio's website as well as on iTunes.


Virtual-reality exploration
NASA's one-ton Curiosity rover, which is due to be lowered down to Mars' Gale Crater late Sunday night (Pacific time), could bring the vision of virtual-reality exploration one step closer, said Rich Terrile, director of the Center for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

"We can actually create immersive data sets with the Mars exploration rovers," he told me. "We're certainly going to try to do that with a limited number of data sets from Curiosity as well. ... People are on board to take what Curiosity does, and try to create the best we can in terms of immersive data sets, to demonstrate their value and power. And maybe as the mission goes on, we'll have opportunities to create richer and richer data sets."

Ultimately, those data sets could give scientists — and even the general public — the opportunity to put on VR helmets or 3-D goggles in a specially laid-out room, and walk through what appears to be a realistic Mars landscape. Scientists could conceivably interact with the environment and take measurements as if they were geologists on Mars.

"It turns out that you gain a tremendous amount with just a very few frames if you’re just interested in the science of understanding Mars," Terrile said. "On the opposite end of that, If you are someone in the public and you want to look at a landscape, then the value of that really increases slowly until you almost have a complete data set. ... Somewhere in the middle, we have to weigh the value."

Terrile said increasingly sophisticated computer modeling can fill in the gaps in data sets, turning millions of observations from different vantage points into a smooth virtual experience. You still need lots and lots of data. "That’s what we struggle with, particularly in a Mars mission, where our time is limited and the amount of data we can send back to Earth is limited," he said. "But I think we're clearly getting to the point where we can create a lot more of these immersive data sets."

Telepresence in Martian orbit
The way Terrile sees it, it's only a matter of time before the power of computing and communications brings a virtual Mars within reach — and brings us closer to the real Mars as well. During a NASA-sponsored meeting on future Mars concepts, held last month, Terrile argued that immersive telepresence could offer a "new paradigm" for Mars exploration. Instead of using data from robots on Mars to create a virtual environment, future explorers could set up VR-ready space stations in Martian orbit to control those robots in real time. That's not possible now, due to the delays involved in sending signals between Earth and Mars.

"When we run a rover from Earth, if we want it to stop or turn around, it’s 14 minutes from the time we push the brake to the time when the thing actually brakes on Mars," Terrile said. "Now, take the human, and instead of operating the vehicle from Earth, you could be operating the vehicle from Mars orbit. It’d be a lot safer environment for the human [than the Martian surface], and a lot less expensive than having to deliver a human to the surface with all the resources that a human would take, and then getting that human off the surface again."

Eventually, humans would probably want to have their own feet on Martian ground, but robots could clear the way with less risk. "Wouldn't it be nice to land and have your shelter built and your  power station built and all your resources built?" Terrile asked. "You can do all that with machines from Mars orbit."

NASA

A human wearing a virtual-reality helmet and other control devices operates a NASA Robonaut mounted on a wheeled rover chassis during a test at Johnson Space Center. Learn more about Robonaut telepresence.

Will all this technology be available by the 2030s, when NASA expects to be ready to send astronauts toward Mars and its moons? Terrile doesn't lay out a timeline, but he thinks it could happen surprisingly quickly. 

"I work a lot outside JPL, in the areas of virtual reality and augmented reality, and the field is just exploding," Terrile said. "In terms of what technologies are available, we gain a factor of two about every 13 months, in terms of Moore's Law and computational resources, and we get that for free. Somebody else is creating that technology for us, and that benefits the human race. I'm hoping to get NASA interested in utilizing thse technologies, because people are going to start seeing them in entertainment. We're going to start seeing them in games. We're going to see them in tourism and museums. So I'm hoping to look for those first opportunities to use them within NASA. I think they’re going to be incredibly powerful."

Immersive data in the lab
Long before that VR lab enters Martian orbit, immersive virtual reality could become routine in earthly labs. That's the vision that Djorgovski has been trying to turn into reality through the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics, or MICA. We'll be doing tonight's "Virtually Speaking Science" talk in front of a live virtual audience at MICA's small auditorium in Second Life.

"A lot of our action in Second Life and OpenSim so far has been trying to understand how to effectively visualize the highly complex data sets that scientists generate," Djorgovski said. "And what immersive virtual reality buys us, in addition to what a good graphical program will do on the desktop, is that scientists can interact with themselves, with the data, in virtual space. Their colleagues can 'walk' into their data. And then there is a subjective quality issue that all users of virtual space know: Somehow there is a high-fidelity illusion of reality and presence. That is what we’re trying to harness as a scientific tool."

Courtesy of George Djorgovski

Second Life residents Desdemona Enfield and Curious George work on a virtual-reality visualization that classifies stars, galaxies and quasars according to their colors, brightness, distance and morphology.

Djorgovski specializes in the huge data sets that are associated with all-sky astronomical surveys, looking for clues to the nature of black holes, quasars and other little-understood phenomena. There could be hundreds of parameters to be measured for hundreds of millions of objects. Visualizing that abstract data through immersive virtual reality just might offer the best way for scientists to wrap their heads around huge research challenges.

Progress has come more slowly than Djorgovski expected, due to several factors.

"One is that the technology just wasn't ready," he explained. "The technology's getting much better very quickly — driven by movies and games. There's money to be made, and that's why we're getting better and better 3-D representations. Another thing is, I think, just the inertia of adopting new things. That is what holds back most of the academic community. They consider immersive virtual reality to be like a game, for obvious reasons. There is a stigma associated with it. That’s not something serious. Of course you can use that technology merely for games, or you can try to use it for serious science and scholarship, which is what we’ve been trying to do. Gradually, this will be a normal way in which we can interact with cyberspace behind our computer screens, or whatever replaces those."

Djorgovski is in the process of phasing out MICA now that funding for the experimental program has run out. But he's ramping up a different project known as Virtual Caltech, which could well represent the next small step toward that virtual giant leap. "We're still at the stage of the beginning of the S curve as far as the adoption of technology is concerned. But sooner or later I think this will be a normal thing. Everybody will be interacting with other people or with information through some sort of 3-D interface."

How much sooner or later? "I really couldn't tell," he said. "I thought that by now we would all be using avatars, and so on, but it's probably going to take a few more years."

The way Djorgovski sees it, the human body is built to interact with a three-dimensional world. For millennia, we've been missing a dimension when it comes to interacting with information.

"Right now we're used to dealing with two-dimensional representations of data, knowledge and information, which is just historical heritage," he said. "Paper or writing surfaces were historically how we started representing information. If we had three-dimensional paper, we would have used it. Now the technology is finally enabling us to represent information in three-dimensional spaces. The exact hardware implementation is going to be who knows what, but it's going to be something that will naturally click with human perception."

Will the vision of immersive virtual reality stand up to a reality check? Join us tonight for "Virtually Speaking Science," and be sure to come with questions for Djorgovski. If you're listening to the show over BlogTalkRadio, you can tweet your questions, using the hashtag #AskVS.

Tune in "Virtually Speaking Science" on BlogTalkRadio or in Second Life. George Djorgovski and I will be at the StellaNova Small Auditorium, courtesy of the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics, at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT/SLT) tonight. If you miss the live event, don't worry: It'll be archived by "Virtually Speaking" on BlogTalkRadio as well as iTunes.

Previous episodes of "Virtually Speaking Science":


Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.