Why we’ll take VR and virtual worlds to other planets

The first touchdown: human missions to the surface of Mars have long been dreamed about and planned for. Sometime in the next 30 years or less, they’ll become a reality. And VR, AR and virtual worlds are likely to play a role (image: SpaceX)

Sometime in the next thirty years, it is likely that humans will set foot on the surface of Mars. The mission that takes them there might be an international government-sponsored mission, or it might be the result of private endeavour. However it comes about, it will be the culmination of decades of planning, hopes and dreams stretching back beyond the birth of the space age.

There is much that a crew on such a mission will be taking with them in terms of hardware, equipment and technology. And it is very likely that when looking down the list of technologies they’ll take with them, one will be able to find virtual reality, virtual worlds and augmented reality – an in a variety of roles and uses.

Take the crew’s psychological health and well-being for example. A round-trip mission to Mars will take between two and 2.5 years to complete, depending upon the “class” of mission undertaken.

The two classes of Mars mission: opposition (l), which are launched when Earth and Mars are on the same side of the Sun, and conjunction class (r) are launched when the Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun both amount to a mission duration of 2- 2.5 years
The two classes of Mars mission: opposition (l), which are launched when Earth and Mars are on the same side of the Sun, and conjunction class (r) are launched when the Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun both amount to a mission duration of 2 – 2.5 years

Throughout that entire time, they’ll be completely isolated from everything we take for granted here on Earth – the freedom to wander outdoors, the sight of a blue sky, green hills, rivers, the sea, cities, lakes, people; they’ll be confined to enclosed spaces which really don’t offer too much in the way of privacy. They’ll even be confined to meals from a menu set months in advance, with no real option to give into a whim for a particular delicacy if it isn’t on their vessel.

For the majority of the mission time, the only people they’ll be able to directly converse with are their fellow crew members – with a minimum round-trip time delay in communications between Earth and Mars of 8 minutes (and potentially as much as 40 minutes through parts of the mission), having real-time conversations with loved ones on Earth simply isn’t going to be possible; they’ll have to rely on pre-recorded messages and video and e-mail.

In these circumstances, stresses are bound to develop, both for the individual members of the crew and, potentially, between team members, no matter how carefully selected for compatibility ahead of the mission or how well-trained. One way of potentially dealing with them is through the use of VR and virtual environments, as NASA and other organisations have been investigating for much of the last decade.

It’s not hard to imagine, for example, a crew going to Mars with a library of pre-filmed environments and events  which they can then explore and enjoy individually or together through the use of personal headsets – or for such a library to be updated with new items beamed via  something like OPALS to their craft. Such environments and activities could provide psychological relief from the confines of the space vehicle.

In June 2014, NASA’s OPALS system beamed the high-definition, 36-second movie “Hello, World” from the International Space Station (travelling at 28,000 kilometres an hour (17,500 mph) to a receiver on Earth in just 3.5 seconds (compared to the 10-12 minutes radio communications would have required. Systems like OPAL offer the key to providing very high bandwidth communications capabilities between Earth and Mars, allowing much more data to be passed back and forth (image: NASA)

Similarly, high fidelity virtual world environments which support direct interaction, such as through haptic feedback mechanisms, might provide the means by which crew members can “remove” themselves from the confines of their vehicle and enjoy a variety of activities, including something we take for granted in VWs today – the ability to create and build.

ANSIBLE (A Network of Social Interactions for Bilateral Life Enhancement) was an initial attempt by NASA, working with SIFT and All These Worlds, to explore how virtual worlds might be leveraged to provide astronauts with environments which could be shared or used individually, and which might offer a range of AI interactions as well.

A screen capture of the main ANSIBLE environment. While openSim probably won't be the VW of choice for a Mission to Mars, the ANSIBLE environment has been used as a means of assessing virtual world environments could each the psychological pressures face by a a confined crew on a long duration space mission
A screen capture of the main ANSIBLE environment. While OpenSim likely won’t be the VW of choice for a Mission to Mars, the ANSIBLE environment is perhaps the first step towards assessing how virtual world environments could ease the psychological pressures face by a confined crew on a long duration space mission (image: SIFT / All These Worlds)

An intriguing element with ANSIBLE was the exploration of the idea that virtual world environments could be asynchronously “shared” between crew members and their friends and family on Earth, allowing them to engage in shared content creation activities, for example, through the swapping back and forth of OAR files, the ability to engage in “shared” immersive games and so on. ANSIBLE researchers even suggested that used in this way, a personal virtual world space could enable an astronaut and their family “share” special occasions more personally than could be done via e-mail, radio or video.

Commenting on the used of immersive environments and haptic technologies in Moving to Mars: There and Back Again (Journal of Cosmology, 2010, Vol 12), Sheryl L. Bishop, Ph.D, noted, “Telepresence and full fidelity audio/video/3-D communication replay capability will provide for more effective psychological support and interaction for crew members and to families and friends back on Earth.”

In terms of crew welfare, virtual reality has another potential use: assisting in matters of fitness. Most current mission scenarios involve the crew travelling to and / or from Mars in a “weightless” environment. Such an environment can be detrimental to many aspects of human physiology – muscles, bones, heart, lungs, etc. It is therefore essential long exposure to weightlessness is countered by routine exercise of up to two hours every day.

Exercise is an essential part of life in micro-gravity, where muscles can easily atrophy, bones suffer calcium loss, the cardiovascular system weaken, etc., away from the pull of Earths gravity. VR could help make such exercise more interesting and help space crews “escape” to more Earth-like environments (image: NASA)

In the confines of a space vehicle, the opportunities for exercise tend to be limited and potentially boring. How much more pleasant it might be for an astronaut who, after lugubriously strapping themselves into a treadmill harness and making all the required tension adjustments ready for 30 or so minutes of going nowhere while staring at a bulkhead, could slip on a VR headset, and go for a run through a woodland park or along a beach, the sounds of nature or the waves in their ears?

Continue reading “Why we’ll take VR and virtual worlds to other planets”

METAbolt updates to

Metabolt-logoMETAbolt is a lightweight text-based client for Second Life and OpenSim offering a range of features and capabilities. At the start of the year, there had been concerns that due to the long delay between updates (the last being August 2013), work on the client had stopped.

However, as I reported in February, this was not the case, but rather CasperTech were stepping-in to take over the project, as was announced on the METAbolt website at the time.

While it has taken a while for things to move forward since then, the initial interim updates from CasperTech have now started to appear.

The updated METAbolt log-in / splash screen highlighting the fact CasperTech are now maintaining it (Feb 2014)
The updated METAbolt log-in / splash screen highlighting the fact CasperTech are now maintaining it (Feb 2014)

The first of these was to update METAbolt from release (Beta) to version (release notes) on June 13th. As an interim update, this release did not bring with it new features or capabilities, but focused more on bug fixes and under-the-hood updates:

  • Bug fixes from CasperTech and contributed by users – for which CasperTach pass on thanks
  • The removal of x64 support – the viewer is now 32-bit focused and installs into C:\Program Files (x86) by default. The reason given for this is, “If METAbolt uses over 4gb of memory, it’s really not doing its job as a lightweight text client. Let’s use faster 32-bit pointers instead!”
  • Initial work on providing Mono support for Linux and Mac compatibility, although as the release notes state, it will be a while yet before this is complete

As this release resulted in an issue with METAbolt plugins, June 14th saw the release of version (release notes) which, as well as fixing the plugins problem, also added a digital signature to the installer to prevent any security warnings from popping up on download.

Both of the releases present METAbolt as an installer .EXE, rather than packaging them as a ZIP file containing the installer and support files, as with previous versions. A little more work is required on cleaning-up some elements, as the installer does still refer to “METAbolt (64 bit)” and defaults to naming the installation folder “METAbolt (64 bit)” under Program Files (x86). However, this is purely a cosmetic thing, and not something that interferes with using the client.

The latest releases mostly contain under-the-hood updates and bug fixes. However a major code refactor for METAbolt is underway
The latest releases mostly contain under-the-hood updates and bug fixes. However a major code refactor for METAbolt is underway

Given the focus with these updates is on under-the-hood changes, the look and feel ofMETAbolt remains largely unchanged from earlier recent releases, other than the revised log-in / splash screen. Which is not to say additional work isn’t already underway.Tom Mettam, now leading the METAbolt project indicates that there is a major code refactor underway; as a part of this, CasperTech apparently plan to offer “bounties” for people willing to assist with the work. Those interested are advised to keep and eye on the Issues section of the METAbolt GitHub tracker for more information.

While I have not covered every release of METAbolt through this blog, those unfamiliar with the client may want to read my initial review, mush of which still appears to be relevant, and check the METAbolt category of this blog for those updates I do have.

Related links

Viewer release summaries 2014: week 24

Updates for the week ending: Sunday June 15th, 2014

This summary is published every Monday and is a list of SL viewer / client releases (official and TPV) made during the previous week. When reading it, please note:

  • It is based on my Current Viewer Releases Page, a list of all Second Life viewers and clients that are in popular use (and of which I am aware), and which are recognised as adhering to the TPV Policy. This page includes comprehensive links to download pages, blog notes, release notes, etc., as well as links to any / all reviews of specific viewers / clients made within this blog
  • By its nature, this summary presented here will always be in arrears, please refer to the Current Viewer Release Page for more up-to-date information

Official LL Viewers

  • Current viewer release: no change from version
  • Release channel cohorts (See my notes on manually installing RC viewer versions if you wish to install any release candidate(s) yourself):
    • MemPlug and Sunshine / AIS v3 RCs removed, superceded by the Memshine RC released in week 23
  • Project viewers:

LL Viewer Resources

Third-party Viewers


  • Black Dragon updated to version on June 9th – core updates: please refer to the release notes (included here as the update had been published at the time of going to press)


  • No Updates

Mobile / Other Clients

  • Metabolt updated to version on June 13th and then on June 14th – core updates:  bug fixes; initial work to provide Mono support for Linux / Max compatibility; removal of x64-bit version; fix for broken plugin issue; digital signature added to installer to prevent security warnings during download – release notes (both versions)

Additional TPV Resources

Related Links