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"Mission: ISS" scene
“Mission: ISS” lets you use Oculus Touch controllers to interact with a virtual-reality version of the International Space Station. (Oculus Rift Illustration)

Oculus has just launched “Mission: ISS,” a virtual-reality simulation that takes advantage of the company’s headset and handheld controllers to let you explore the International Space Station and even perform a virtual spacewalk.

The computer-generated environment, designed for Oculus Rift and Oculus Touch, provides yet another hint at the shape of things to come at the intersection of virtual and augmented reality with space exploration.

For years, NASA and other space agencies have been closing in on the creation of real-life, 3-D environments that folks can experience through 360-degree video and VR devices as simple as Google Cardboard. Here’s a sampling:

  • The European Space Agency offers “Space Station 360,” a series of 360-degree, VR-enabled still-image panoramas of the space station’s modules. Turn around in the station’s Unity node and you can catch NASA astronaut Scott Kelly at work in zero-G.
  • NSC Creative produced the Tim Peake ISS 360 Planetarium Tour in cooperation with Britain’s first official astronaut, ESA, the U.K. Space Agency and several British science institutions. It’s not so much a tour of the space station as it is a 360-degree view from your seat in the planetarium, but it does give you a sense of scale for the space station.
  • One of NASA’s coolest VR offerings is a 360-degree, Cardboard-friendly video clip that puts you in Johnson Space Center’s training pool for an underwater spacewalk rehearsal. Although this video isn’t set in space, it gives you an idea what’ll be possible when astronauts are hooked up with 360-degree, 3-D camera rigs.

“Mission: ISS” raises the bar another notch closer to that vision. The project is the result of a collaboration with NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency, plus the L.A.-based Magnopus studio. You can go through a simulated spacewalk, bring in a cargo capsule for a hookup and perform other mission-critical tasks. The package also includes several immersive videos in which astronauts tell their stories.

Oculus says it’s piloting a limited beta program to provide U.S. high school students with direct access to “Mission: ISS.” The company is also partnering with CNES, France’s space agency, to send an Oculus Rift VR system to the space station.

“The Rift will be used for the first time in orbit by European astronaut Thomas Pesquet to test the effects of zero-gravity on human spatial awareness and balance using software developed by the space agencies,” Oculus said today in a blog posting.

That experiment will follow in the virtual footsteps of Project Sidekick, which gave astronauts the chance to use Microsoft’s HoloLens headset to practice performing augmented-reality maintenance tasks on the space station (and fight off computer-generated space aliens).

Another company based in the Seattle area, Bellevue-based Valve, has been working on a Mars VR environment based on NASA imagery of the Red Planet.

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