Become a Virtual Space Tourist
Many astronauts say the view of earth from space is so profound it changes how they think about the world and those who live there. It is understandable then, why several companies are competing to build rockets for space tourism. But considering that the cheapest tickets to board one of these rockets will run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, this will be something only a few will be able to experience. Yet, with new augmented and virtual reality technology, the rest of us may have an alternate avenue to take part in space travel from the comfort of our own home.
Augmented reality, takes current reality and adds something to it. It doesn’t make us feel as if we have actually been moved somewhere else. It uses visors or glasses to augment our reality. AR allows the person to remain present in their world but provides an improvement on it. An example showing the difference between VR and AR would be the difference between scuba diving to going to an aquarium. With VR you can feel like you are swimming with dolphins. With AR you can watch a dolphin pop out of your bathroom.
The first example of mass marketed AR was the 2016 computer game Pokemon Go which allowed a variety of cute monster like critters to take over your lawn, your bedroom, your route to work or school, whether you wanted them to or not. The mobile game uses a smartphone camera to allow players to interact with their immediate surroundings through a virtual map. AR and VR games are expected to earn $120 billion by 2020.
Virtual reality is able to make the user feel like they are somewhere else. This is accomplished through the use of visors or goggles which blocks out room and projects a different reality behind the visor or goggles glass. The newest technology can actually make you feel as if you have been transposed somewhere.
The immersion experience can be extremely dramatic, sometimes even providing a sensation of movement as the user does different types of activities such as riding in a vehicle or climbing a staircase. Game fans are not strangers to VR and today you can buy a mobile VR gaming device that sells for under $50. Theme parks are also taking advantage of VR technology. For example, at Knott's Berry Farm, VR Showdown In Ghost Town, an interactive 360 degree full motion virtual reality experience, lets you fight robots with others to defend the futuristic town.
NASA Develops Virtual Space Vacations
If you are not the patient type, NASA has already developed virtual trips to planets outside our solar system. You can plan trips to different planets through their interactive Exoplanet Travel Bureau. As the nearest of these planets are light years away, it isn’t possible to send humans or even spacecraft with satellites that can transmit actual images back to us so reality based virtual space tours aren’t possible.
But don’t despair. NASA has created the Exoplanet Exploration website, where you can experience what it’s like to investigate an alien world through 360-degree interactive virtual visualizations. Though perhaps they don’t actually represent the real thing they are very realistic and created from the body of data that exist on these planets and the area of the galaxy where they are located. Since we have no preformed ideas or images of these planets, the virtual experience won’t seem inauthentic.
Virtual tourists can explore multiple planets and enjoy numerous unique features on each one, such as the blood red sky on TRAPPIST 1d. You can also learn what it feels like to stand on the moon of a gigantic planet, which is larger than either of the planets two suns. As no photos of these planets exist, the images that are projected are artists renderings based on the data that has been collected.
This technology goes beyond just visualizing a constant image of a planet. It is interactive and intended to allow people to experiment with various aspects of these planets and their surroundings to learn what effects different changes would create. For example, the newest planet added to NASA’s program is Kepler 186-f, which orbits a star that is colder and more red than our sun. NASA scientists are currently unsure whether this planet has an atmosphere, and if so, what it is made up of. However, participants can use the NASA visualization tool to see the changes that occur in the sky’s appearance when manipulating whether an atmosphere is present or absent.
All the 360-degree visualizations can be viewed on desktop and mobile devices, or in virtual reality headsets that work with smartphones. It is hoped that with future NASA missions such as those utilizing the James Webb Space Telescope that it might be possible to explore the closest exoplanet to our solar system. This could allow us to move from speculations to knowledge of what’s really there.
The Development of Augmented and Virtual Space Tourism
Virtual and Augmented space tourism emerged from earth based national and international tourism. Although still being developed for use across the tourism industry, Augmented Reality (AR) technology is already being used in some areas. Asiatravel.com and its B2B arm TAcentredotcom has created digital theatrical tours for the Asian market. Yaturu has created a five day AR Israel tour. Yet these tours require the individual to actually travel to the location where the tour is taking place. Technology in development will allow people to use AR either alone or in combination with Virtual Technology (VR) from practically anywhere to provide a better travel-like experience
As tourism and ecotourism have developed, people everywhere have shown the desire to take part. Yet, like space tourism, many people can't travel to distant places or take part in more demanding activities such as safaris or scuba diving. Also, ecotourism and the desire to protect the environment have led some in the industry creating scenic but inauthentic adventures meant to imitate real life. This has resulted from concerns about more standard tourism practices. These involve the failure to compromise development even when it means exploiting the natural resources on which tourism is dependent. More recently, the tourism sector is focusing on more sustainable forms of tourism to avoid these problems. They have created experiences that everyone can enjoy regardless of circumstances or environmental considerations.
Some companies are working to include more of the senses in virtual tourism to make it more life like. For example Telexistence Inc., a Tokyo-based robotic startup, is working on a real-life VR avatar. This will make it possible for the user to see what the avatar sees and, with the use of special gloves, to feel what it feels. They are also working on technology to enhance the sensory experience, and include all five senses. This would make it possible to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the Cherry Blossom in Kyoto from your living room.
The company is developing a shared tourism option in their 360-degree travel packages. With shared experiences and the realization of all five senses this new VR technology will likely feel very real. WIth this type of new VR technology, travel agencies will be able to redefine vacationing with their enormous libraries of virtual travel media. While virtual space travel isn’t at this level yet, it is anticipated that once off the ground, similar technology will be developed for space tourism, as well.
Augmented and Virtual Reality Space Tourism
Augmented Reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have something in common with space travel. They can also alter our perception of the world. Now two companies, Rewind, an immersive content studio and In Space Missions, a space industry corporation, have formed SpaceTime Enterprises. They intend to launch several satellites that will have cameras capable broadcasting real-time immersive video footage of the Earth. The satellites will even be able to overlay meteorological systems, atmospheric phenomenon, celestial bodies and other information to make for a total immersion experience. The only thing anyone will need to access this view will be VR/AR goggles.
This technology will improve on NASA’s Exoplanet Travel Bureau through real images being projected back to earth in real time. This means that in addition to being able to use this technology for simple enjoyment, it can also be used for real life practical missions such as those involving the environment and different ecosystems.
Executives at Rewind and In-Space Missions have expressed the desire to make virtual space tourism available to everyone. Towards this effort, they hope to be able to soon mass produce the technology making this possible. In an interview, CEO of In-Space Missions said, “We want it to become commonplace to ‘be’ in space because by being in space you actually connect with the planet.”
The company has obtained $3 million of the needed funding, which will allow the first satellite to be launched in the fall of 2019. Onboard will be several cameras capable of delivering images of the entire Earth at the same resolution as what would be perceived in space. With the VR/AR goggles in place it will seem like you are looking out of the window of the International Space Station and viewing whatever the satellite is flying over at the time. The AR component will be the experience of feeling stabilized indoors on the space station which is merged with the person’s real life surroundings, while the VR component will be the perception of being in outer space.
With more satellites being launched and a growing database the augmented reality function will increase such that within the next five years the company plans to provide views of any place on Earth in real time. At this point, the users won’t be limited to feeling like they are attached to the satellites. Instead, it will be possible to travel around the planet and focus in on different areas based on individual interests. For example, environmental concerns or scientific endeavors can be explored and measurements of the earth can be taken or weather patterns can be tracked from a global perspective.
The future of virtual and augmented space tourism is almost here. SpaceVR, a company based in San Francisco, has already launched a test satellite. It is docked at the International Space Station waiting to be deployed. Earth-i, a UK-based corporation launched a test satellite the beginning of 2018. They have already posted high definition videos from space of airplanes taking off and cars on highways.
The companies that are developing virtual and augmented space tourism technology continue to take advantage of developments in regular virtual tourism, exploring advanced sensory capabilities and shared experiences. If SpaceTime Enterprises and the other companies succeed in making these views as widely available as they hope, we will all have the potential to travel to the stars and feel like we are really there.
Damjanov, K., & Crouch, D. (2018). Extra-planetary mobilities and the media prospects of virtual space tourism. Mobilities, 13(1), 1-13.
Mura, P., Tavakoli, R., & Sharif, S. P. (2017). ‘Authentic but not too much’: exploring perceptions of authenticity of virtual tourism. Information Technology & Tourism, 17(2), 145-159.
Take a Virtual Trip to a Strange New World With NASA NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
© 2018 Natalie Frank