Australian gamers training astronauts

07 Sep 2017

Author: Matthew Hall

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A virtual reality (VR) game developed by award-winning Australian company Opaque Media is being used by NASA to train its astronauts for future space missions. The space agency’s Hybrid Reality Laboratory is using Earthlight, a VR game based on the authentic depiction of human spaceflight, in its next-generation training systems for astronauts, engineers and scientists.
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In a case of life imitating art, an Australian company’s virtual reality (VR) game about a NASA astronaut is now being used by NASA to develop new methods of training astronauts.

Melbourne-based Opaque Space’s Earthlight is a narrative-driven VR game that follows the story of ‘one of NASA’s brightest and most talented astronauts’. Originally funded by the Victorian state government, NASA came calling after Emre Deniz, the game’s creator, posted screenshots of Earthlight to Reddit for feedback from fellow gamers. 

Opaque Space met with NASA to research, interview and gather data about their work. In 2016, the space agency began using assets and content from  Earthlight to recreate scenarios its astronauts would experience on space missions, which led to a collaboration between Opaque Space and NASA on the game’s development as well as creating new assets, technologies and scenarios for use at NASA. During development, Earthlight quickly gained international acclaim within the gaming industry.

In March 2017, Earthlight was successfully tested on the Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Earthlight is expected to be part of NASAs future efforts for developing new methods of training for Low-Earth Orbit operations and even beyond. 

“One of the more surreal experiences we recently had was sitting down with NASA personnel over tacos and ice-cream at the Johnson Space Center and discussing virtual reality,” says Deniz, CEO of Opaque Space, a company that has grown out of Opaque Space that focuses on VR tech for aerospace.

“We have made a couple of trips to NASA facilities and helped setup testing equipment onsite,” says 30-year-old Deniz. “We were able to test out VR technologies and content on ARGOS where they traditionally train astronauts. It was very surreal for us to be casually working while 300 people on a gantry took photographs because they thought we were astronauts in training.”
 
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Gaming inspires cutting-edge technology

NASA has been exploring VR technology since the 1980s but has more recently included pursuing proprietary technology to instead adopt and adapt technology and hardware that is readily available, especially from the consumer market. NASA’s aim is to create ‘augmented virtuality’ or ‘hybrid reality’, which is where Opaque Space enters the picture.

“We essentially use VR trackers on physical objects so users can have tactile feedback,” explains Deniz. “Users can grab physical objects and see them as tools or parts of a spacecraft. That shift has only come about in recent times because of the more collaborative and open nature of games development.

Deniz emphasises that the key to developing revolutionary technology is basing it on games – an industry no longer seen as solely about arcades and entertainment.

“We use game engines that can be downloaded to your PC right now and are using hardware you can buy from a computer store. It means we now have in our office in Melbourne the development capability to support what was previously inaccessible unless you had multimillion-dollar budgets.

“Earthlright was – and is – predominantly a consumer-facing franchise but this is essentially a disruption to a previously inaccessible industry,” Deniz says. “When we talk about games and game development, you are talking about technology development.
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“We’re hoping that when someone comes home and they see their kid has been playing their PlayStation for the entire afternoon, it is because they are learning how to be an astronaut in a game rather than making an assumption that game time is wasted time.”

Industry analysis suggests commercial VR gaming in 2017 is in a state of consolidation but uptake is set to rise as VR technology prices drop. That trend is also seen as good news for industry adopting VR.

“It’s important for us to change the political mindscape,” says Deniz. “The games industry is beyond mobile games or console games. It is a way to break into industries that weren’t even thought about previously as related to gaming.”

VR training tool for Alzheimer’s carers

Opaque Media established its reputation as a cutting-edge VR game developer for its work with Alzheimer’s Australia, a national organisation that represents Australians living and caring for people with dementia.

The Virtual Dementia Experience is an immersive, interactive VR experience that takes family, carers and health professionals into the world of a person living with dementia. The game includes auditory and visual hallucinations, simulated memory loss, and highlights the effects of disorientation.

It is now part of the Alzheimer’s Australia training curriculum for nurses and was awarded the 2014 Victorian and National iAwards in Education, the 2014 APICTA Award in Education, and the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2015 World Citizenship Award.

“We have started to see health companies around the world move toward empathic learning tools,” says Deniz. “We recognise the empathic learning and teaching capabilities of virtual reality and believe that VR is a pretty powerful tool.”

Australian education environment promotes innovation

Deniz came to VR through his interest in gaming. He studied at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne where he earned a Bachelor of Arts, Games, and Interactivity and was awarded Honours in Digital Communication and Media/Multimedia.

“I had a lot of academic mentors there that allowed me to excel at my studies,” he says of his time at Swinburne. “The student environment was very nurturing.”

Today, Deniz oversees a company poised to grow from four full-time staff to at least 30 employees in the near future (parent company Opaque Media employs 16 full-time staff) and play a major role in training astronauts for future space missions.

“Right now it costs US$10.5 billion to keep five people in space [on a space station] but the question is what will that number be when we want to put 20,30, 40, 50 people up there?” he says, explaining the broader and often ignored challenges for space missions.
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“What about if we want to go beyond our lower earth orbit and put people on the moon, or go to Mars, or to capture asteroids for mining? Some of these things are beyond our lifetime but others are within the reach by the time I turn 40.”

It turns out a small business in Melbourne is helping solve some of those problems.

“If you had have asked me a few years ago whether I was going to end up on NASA’s training simulator, I would have told you that you were crazy,” Deniz says. “But it highlights that as Australians we are really punching above our weight in this field.”

Find out more about Opaque Media