The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Worden and avatar
Pete Worden, director of NASA Ames, speaks at the ISDC in Dallas on May 26 with his Second Life avatar, SimonPete Raymaker, in the background. (credit: J. Foust)

Virtual reality and participatory exploration

For most of the first half-century of the Space Age, there was little the average person could do to actively participate in the exploration of space. For most people, their role was passive: watching mission coverage on TV or reading books and articles. Some enthusiasts could join clubs and organizations devoted to promoting spaceflight, attend launches, and otherwise devote more of their time to the topic, but again with very little influence on the missions and exploration themselves. Only a very small fraction of the public actively participated in space exploration as an employee of a government agency, company, or organization directly involved in missions, and, of those, only a very, very small fraction got to participate by flying into space themselves. For everyone else, spaceflight has been a passive pursuit.

However, that doesn’t have to remain the case. Thanks to new technologies, most notably the Internet, that enable and even encourage interactivity, it’s now possible to give more people the opportunity to participate in space exploration in one manner or another—a concept that already has a buzzword attached to it: “participatory exploration”. (See “The medium and the message”, The Space Review, January 2, 2007) NASA is currently experimenting with some ways to get the public more involved with future exploration of the Moon and other destinations, particularly through the use of virtual reality tools; the agency is hosting a “Participatory Exploration Summit” this week at the Ames Research Center on this subject. But, by doing so, does NASA run the risk of blurring the lines between hard physical reality and its computer-generated counterpart and, in the long run, make it harder to support human exploration of the solar system?

NASA gets a Second Life

NASA’s best-known foray into this area has been its presence in Second Life, an “online digital world” in the words of its developer, Linden Lab. Second Life is one of a number of online multiplayer games that have become popular in recent years, but unlike other such games, there are no specific adventures to undertake, battles to fight, or worlds to conquer. Instead, it’s more of an unstructured environment where people can explore, interact with others, build (and buy and sell) all sorts of items, and… whatever else one might do in ordinary life, and then some. NASA’s Collaborative Space Exploration Laboratory (CoLab) has its own presence, or “island”, in Second Life, that’s used to host meetings and as a technology testbed of sorts.

“This is not your father’s space program,” said Worden. “The new technology of virtual life and cyberspace means that we can all participate in the Vision for Space Exploration.”

The biggest use of NASA’s Second Life presence to date was a speech given by NASA Ames director Pete Worden during the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) last month. While Worden was physically at the conference in Dallas, his Second Life avatar, dubbed SimonPete Raymaker, spoke at the NASA CoLab island before an audience of several dozen other avatars. Initially, those in the audience didn’t even see Worden himself: he remained behind the scenes while people watched his avatar—which looked superficially similar to Worden, albeit younger and with a darker complexion—on a large screen.

Despite the unusual, even surreal, setting, Worden touched upon some more conventional topics, such as the use of small satellites in space exploration. He specifically mentioned NASA Ames’ Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), a spacecraft that will fly to the Moon along with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission late next year; and GeneSat-1, an eight-kilogram nanosatellite built by Ames and launched as a secondary payload on an Air Force mission last December. Even in that discussion, though, he cast smallsats as another disruptive technology reshaping how we explore space.

“This is not your father’s space program,” said Worden. “The new technology of virtual life and cyberspace means that we can all participate in the Vision for Space Exploration. The revolution in nanotechnology means that we can do pretty surprising things in very small packages, too.”

The emphasis for now in NASA’s Second Life presence is on testing collaborative techniques and technologies. “I certainly intend on using CoLab and Second Life as a way to begin a new type of collaboration,” he said. “We’re looking at how this island can be a portal for all to fly along on space missions: real data from real missions such as the International Space Station can be ported into virtual environments and allow all to accompany these space missions.”

Worden said that Ames’ foray into Second Life has had the support of others in the agency, including NASA Headquarters, who, like Worden, see this as an opportunity to build support for NASA’s overall exploration efforts. “One of our big challenges here is to figure out how to excite the next generation of Americans and people throughout the world,” Worden said. “People use these tools to experience the world, so the more we can do in these new kinds of venues, the better.”

“Hopefully we can get [NASA administrator] Mike Griffin to develop an avatar,” he added. “One that plays golf.”

Beyond Second Life

While much of the attention to date has been on NASA’s experiments in Second Life—perhaps because the online game has been something of a media darling in its own right—people at the space agency are looking far beyond just dabbling with avatars. In the nearer term, CoLab is proposing to develop a complete model of the International Space Station in Second Life. “This would involve designing all the components of the ISS in a way that could be rendered in Second Life,” said Jessy Cowan-Sharp of NASA Ames during a separate session about CoLab at the ISDC. This effort would be intended to teach people the technical skills required to create objects in Second Life, she explained, but in the process also teaching people a lot about the ISS itself.

“Hopefully we can get [NASA administrator] Mike Griffin to develop an avatar,” Worden said. “One that plays golf.”

While NASA is working with Second Life for now, it is looking at other virtual reality options, including its own technology that could later be integrated into Second Life as Linden Lab opens up the virtual world’s server architecture, said Andrew Hoppin, co-founder of CoLab. “We can add more reality to the physics engine, for example, to do scientifically accurate virtual environments,” he said.

Down the road, Worden described a hypothetical future lunar rover mission where the general public could be involved and even help the professionals involved on the mission. “As the rover streams its data back to Earth, we can build up an increasingly accurate virtual model of the land it is traversing. Your avatar can explore along with those of scientists and engineers managing the mission. You might just have some expertise, or simple knack of geology, and could shout to the mission manager, ‘Hey, over here, isn’t that carbonaceous material?’ In this manner we can all participate in space exploration.”

“It won’t be long before the fanciful holodecks of Star Trek will become a real tool for all of us to share in, participate, and contribute to the Vision for Space Exploration,” he said. “When the next people step on the surface of the Moon in a little over a decade, your avatar could be with them.”


Such efforts are not without their problems, of course. Not surprisingly, there are a number of technical issues, even with the current, relatively straightforward use of Second Life. During Worden’s ISDC presentation his Second Life software crashed, a problem he blamed on the use of beta software. At other times the virtual world appeared sluggish, an issue others have reported to be endemic to Second Life in general whenever there’s a large number of avatars in the same place at once.

Beyond the technical problems, though, are cultural issues. The use of avatars, as Hoppin explained, can be somewhat liberating. “All the baggage that you bring in terms of rank and hierarchy and who you’re from and who you represent really melts away,” he explained. “We formed really quickly effective working relationships with our peers at other centers.” While that’s a benefit to communication and collaboration, it can pose a problem when the virtual environment is used to collaborate on technical projects that can involve sensitive and regulated technologies, as many space projects do. Just who is the person behind that colorful avatar?

“Obviously there’s a lot challenges as we have more and more collaborative arrangements,” said Worden. “A lot of the key issues here in terms of preliminary designs and collaborations can be done in an open manner. As we move forward, it just means that we have a job for a lot of lawyers.”

“I think it supplements reality and makes it a lot more real,” Worden said of virtual reality. “I’m not really worried that we’ll end up where everyone lives in some imaginary world.”

A bigger issue than that, though, is the blurring of the lines between virtual reality and physical reality. A long-running theme in science fiction, for example, is the addictive nature of virtual worlds, causing people to favor them instead of the physical world: Star Trek fans no doubt recall the character Lt. Barclay, who retreated to the fantasy world of the holodeck when he had problems working and socializing with his fellow officers. As virtual space exploration becomes more sophisticated, might people be less interested in real spaceflight? Will people be interested in watching humans return to the Moon—or even becoming the astronauts who perform those flights—when they can walk on a virtual representation of the lunar surface whenever they want?

Worden thinks those concerns are overblown. “I think it supplements reality and makes it a lot more real,” he said of virtual reality. “The purpose of this is to use this as a tool to expand our consciousness and our ability to experience the universe. I’m quite excited about this and I’m not really worried that we’ll end up where everyone lives in some imaginary world.”

Worden is confident that Second Life and other virtual reality systems are the future of space exploration. “As we expand into and settle the solar system, we’ll all be going.”