Microsoft is sending its HoloLens to the ISS so astronauts can use augmented reality

As if floating through space weren’t awesome enough, NASA just announced that it plans on sending Microsoft’s revolutionary HoloLens technology to the International Space Station later this week. Officially dubbed Project Sidekick, the partnership isn’t merely a test vehicle for the augmented reality unit, but rather an intuitive way for astronauts to work and communicate more efficiently. Set to launch this week as part of a commercial resupply mission, the HoloLens devices will travel aboard the rebuilt Cygnus spacecraft.

Though the project suffered a minor setback last June, NASA’s decision to move forward with its Microsoft collaboration was fueled by the incredible advantages the HoloLens could provide to astronauts. As mentioned above, the agency feels that augmented reality has huge potential to make working in space easier for astronauts. Whereas a device like the Oculus Rift actually produces an independently created environment, Microsoft’s tech would superimpose digital elements on top of what astronauts actually see.

NASA and Microsoft engineers test Project Sidekick in a weightless chamber
NASA and Microsoft engineers test Project Sidekick in a weightless chamber NASA

“As opposed to virtual reality which removes you from the real world, with HoloLens the real world plays just as much into the experience as the digital assets,” says Microsoft’s Alex Kipman. “We’re adding photons to the back of your eye. They feel anchored and pinned in the real world, but are see through.”

By making use of the tech’s different functions, astronauts aboard the ISS can actually work with those on the ground in real time. With the HoloLens switched into remote expert mode, teams on the ground have the ability to see what the astronaut sees, remotely draw notes or directions, and talk directly to the wearer through Skype. Moreover, this mode makes it easier for astronauts to consult numerous experts or scientists while conducting various research projects.

“HoloLens and other virtual and mixed reality devices are cutting edge technologies that could help drive future exploration and provide new capabilities to the men and women conducting critical science on the International Space Station,” said ISS program director Sam Sciemi last summer. “This new technology could also empower future explorers requiring greater autonomy on the journey to Mars.”

NASA and Microsoft's OnSight project
NASA and Microsoft’s OnSight project NASA

Becuase Project Sidekick possesses a massive amount of upside, NASA and Microsoft worked overtime to ensure that sending the tech to the ISS wouldn’t be for naught. Aside from extensive microgravity and processing unit testing, the two organizations spent many hours making sure the HoloLens wouldn’t cause any discomfort or disorientation to those wearing it.

As can be the case for some people using virtual or augmented reality devices, headaches and nausea are typical side effects from prolonged use. To fight this, a stabilizing product was manufactured which actively keeps holographs in space and time completely stable. What this does is allow the astronaut’s senses to react as if it were grounded in the real world, lessening the amount of flickering in the images and making it easier to wear for extended periods of time.

Moving forward, Project Sidekick is just the tip of the NASA and Microsoft partnership iceberg. Also under development between the two is a revolutionary software program called OnSight which would also make use of the HoloLens. Under the guidance of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, OnSight would allow scientists on Earth to work alongside astronauts traveling to Mars, virtually taking them to the Red Planet while they physically remain on Earth.

Scheduled to broadcast on NASA’s online streaming client NASA TV, the commercial resupply mission will take off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida this Thursday.

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