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Mars Curiosity and Erisa Hines in HoloLens
Erisa Hines, a driver for the Mars Curiosity rover, talks to participants during the “Destination: Mars” mixed-reality tour. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Microsoft)

Microsoft and NASA are bringing HoloLens to the masses – and bringing the masses to Mars – with a mixed-reality experience that will make its debut this summer.

“Destination: Mars,” an exhibit opening at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida this summer, takes regular folks on a virtual guided tour to sites visited by the Curiosity rover on the Red Planet.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin serves as one of the “holographic tour guides,” along with Curiosity rover driver Erisa Hines of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“The experience lets the public explore Mars in an entirely new way,” JPL visualization producer Doug Ellison said today in a news release. “To walk through the exact landscape that Curiosity is roving across puts its achievements and discoveries into beautiful context.”

When users put on the Microsoft HoloLens headsets, they’ll see a 3-D view of the Martian landscape that shifts and rotates as they turn their heads. They’ll even be able to walk through the scene, as if they were walking on Mars. (The technology represents the payoff on a vision of interplanetary telepresence I was gushing about a dozen years ago.)

“Destination: Mars” is an adaptation of OnSight, a 3-D visualization tool that was co-developed by Microsoft and JPL to help Curiosity’s scientists navigate the Martian landscape.

Mars isn’t the only destination being laid out for HoloLens exploration: JPL is working on mixed-reality applications that astronauts can used on the International Space Station, and that engineers can use as they design and assemble spacecraft.

The station’s astronauts gave HoloLens headsets their first in-space tryouts over the past couple of months, during Scott Kelly’s nearly yearlong stint in orbit. After his return to Earth, Kelly said mixed-reality technology “has great potential for applications, not only in space but of course on Earth as well.”

Buzz Aldrin in HoloLens Mars experience
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldin serves as a “holographic tour guide” in the HoloLens mixed-reality experience called “Destination: Mars.” (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Microsoft)

Mixed-reality technology, also known as augmented reality, involves blending computer-generated imagery with real-life scenes in the user’s view. Technically speaking, it’s different from virtual reality, an immersive 3-D experience that’s independent of the user’s real-life environment.

NASA is also working with technology partners to create virtual-reality Mars experiences. One such project is “The Mars 2030 Experience,” the result of a NASA partnership with Fusion VR, NVIDIA and MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory.

“Mars 2030” lets users explore a simulated 3-D environment on the Red Planet, as if they were immersed in a virtual movie set for “The Martian.” The project made its debut this month at the South By Southwest festival in Texas.

Developers say they’ll soon make free demo versions of “Mars 2030” available for Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Samsung VR Gear, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive, via Valve’s Steam marketplace and on Fusion.net. You’ll also be able to find it on iTunes (for Apple iOS) and Google Play (for Android). Twitch.tv will offer a streaming-video version of the experience.

Valve, headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., has been demonstrating its own Mars VR environment for HTC Vive. It recently gathered imagery from the cockpit of the space shuttle trainer at Seattle’s Museum of Flight for a future VR application.

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