What's more futuristic than an augmented reality headset? An augmented reality headset in space, of course.
Just when you thought Microsoft's new augmented reality technology, HoloLens, couldn't get any more amazing, the company teamed up with NASA to send it into space. The first pair of HoloLens-enabled virtual reality devices specially designed for space, dubbed Sidekick, is scheduled to launch aboard SpaceX's commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station on June 28.
NASA and Microsoft are not going through all this effort to provide astronauts with a totally awesome way to play Xbox games. Rather, the purpose of Sidekick is to provide a better way of assisting crews at the space station.
"Microsoft HoloLens is about transforming the ways you create, connect, and explore," said Alex Kipman, technical fellow, Windows and Devices Group at Microsoft, in a statement. "Sidekick is a prime example of an application for which we envisioned HoloLens being used — unlocking new potential for astronauts and giving us all a new perspective on what is possible with holographic computing."
Those involved in the project hope to cut down on crew training requirements by using HoloLens to bring in "remote experts." With Skype, astronauts can use Sidekick to virtually bring an expert up to space to check out the problem. An operator on the ground would be able to see exactly what the crew member in space is seeing and guide that crew member through tasks in real-time. The operator would even be able to annotate the astronaut's environment with drawings.
To make sure the technology will work in space, engineers from NASA and Microsoft tested Sidekick in NASA's Weightless Wonder C9 jet. However, space is not the final frontier for Sidekick.
Plans to send Sidekick to the deep ocean are already in the works. A group of astronauts and engineers will test the technology at the world's only undersea research station, Aquarius, for two weeks as part of the NASA Extreme Environment Missions Operations (NEEMO) 20 expedition, scheduled to start on July 21.
"HoloLens and other virtual and mixed reality devices are cutting-edge technologies that could help drive future exploration and provide new capabilities to the men and women conducting critical science on the International Space Station," Sam Scimemi, director of the ISS program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "This new technology could also empower future explorers requiring greater autonomy on the journey to Mars."
Yes, NASA and Microsoft have even already announced plans to bring HoloLens all the way to Mars with a software they are developing called OnSight, though that goal is still a distant one. Sidekick is part of a larger partnership between the two companies aimed at exploring the potential that holographic computing holds for space exploration in general.