Tear it up on Mars in ‘Red Rover,’ the driving sim built on NASA data

During the festive holiday season in 2016, Alan Chan spent his week’s vacation time off work exploring Mars. As most of us did last minute Christmas shopping, ate turkey, and reminded ourselves of why discussing politics with dad is a bad idea, Chan was romping, carefree, over Mars’ ruddy surface in a rover-style space buggy. Not a bad time to get away from Earth, as it so happens!

“You look at satellite data and you just don’t have a sense of scale, right?” Chan told Digital Trends. “You think, like, ‘here are some mountains,’ but you don’t get a sense of what it would actually feel like if you were standing there. It’s like going up in an airplane. All the towns you’ve been to and the roads you drive around suddenly look completely different. [Being on the surface] totally changes your perception.”

Flat images could be made 3D and run through the Unreal engine to turn it into an explorable experience.

Before we get any further we should note that, no, you haven’t somehow missed out on the greatest homebrew rocketry story of all time. If you feel like you saw something about a solo Mars explorer on TV at some point in the past, you’re almost certainly remembering Matt Damon’s character from The Martian.

Chan — a video game cinematics creator from California — wasn’t physically on Mars. Instead, he was exploring the Red Planet through a hacked-together home project in which he took satellite and terrain data from the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and transformed it into a photorealistic virtual recreation of the martian landscape

“This data was available online for scientific purposes,” he continued. “What I did was to take that information and reformat it so I could put it into a game engine.” With some neat triangulation software, flat images could be transformed into three-dimensions and run through the Unreal engine to turn it into an explorable experience. “I don’t think anyone else had done it before,” he said.

Alan Chan

The results are something that, until Elon Musk and others finally get their act together, lets users explore the sights of Mars — from the enormous Victoria Crater to Candor Chasma, one of the largest canyons in the planet’s Valles Marineris canyon system. You can even play it in full immersive virtual reality, courtesy of an Oculus Rift headset.

Less game, more data visualization

Ultimately, Red Rover isn’t really a game. There are no mission objectives, no evil aliens lurking behind rocks to be mowed down, and no way to die. What it is is an impressive demonstration of cutting edge data visualization; the way that creators can take advantage of the amazing space data being produced by organizations like NASA and turn it into something that’s approachable and understandable to the rest of us.

“I would love to visualize flying through the Great Red Spot on Jupiter but I don’t have enough data to do it just yet.”

It’s not wholly accurate, Chan acknowledged. The Martian buggy itself is, by his own admission, ridiculously overpowered. He also took a few liberties with the ambient wind noises, which are there to make it more immersive, but are probably more than you would actually hear in real life. However, the biggest bit of dramatic license involved creating textures to flesh out the extra detail needed for the planet.

Despite being the most high-resolution footage we’ve yet got of Mars, Chan notes that it still only equates to one pixel per half meter. That means that, uploaded with total fidelity, the surfaces look horribly stretched close up.

To counteract this, he replaced them with new texture data of sand, dirt and rocks to make it look better. (“You can actually disable that in the ‘options’ menu so you can see the data as it was actually taken,” he noted. If you’re more scientifically oriented you might want to do that.”)

In the future, Chan would like to extend the project to other planets, whenever the data is available. “I would love to visualize flying through the Great Red Spot on Jupiter but I don’t have enough data to do it just yet,” he said.

Mars remains the main focus, though. With that in mind, the title will continue evolving as more and more HiRISE data is beamed back to Earth.

Alan Chan
Alan Chan, developer of Red Rover

In his Steam notes for the “game”, Chan — who is in late forties — notes that he grew up believing that we would have colonized Mars by this point. To date, we have not, which is why Red Rover may be your best chance to explore the planet.

At $4.99 on Steam, compared with the billions spent by space agencies, it’s almost certainly the cheapest.

Gaming

E3 2019: Microsoft’s hasty, brave Project xCloud demo can’t handle the pressure

Microsoft brought Project xCloud, its cloud gaming service, to E3 2019. I played Halo 5 and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrafice on a smartphone powered by an xCloud server hundreds of miles away. It worked, but it wasn't magic.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will pave the way for manned missions to Mars

Survival on Mars is a massive challenge for humanity. To cope with the highly variable temperatures, lack of oxygen and water, and high levels of radiation, the Mars 2020 rover will carry instruments to pave the way for human exploration.
Movies & TV

Will Smith’s best movies ranked, from Bad Boys to Ali to Hitch

A ranking of Hollywood actor Will Smith's best movies to date. From his early roles during the Fresh Prince days to his Oscar-baiting dramas, Smith has played all kinds of characters in a wide array of beloved films.
Emerging Tech

Mars lander simulator lets you take Opportunity rover for one last spin

NASA called it quits on its 15-year-old, record-setting Mars rover Opportunity earlier this year. Thankfully, a new update for a Mars rover simulator lets you take Opportunity for another spin.
Emerging Tech

This drone with hands looks like a nightmare straight out of Black Mirror

This unlikely drone-with-hands creation is the work of Federico Ciccarese, the brains behind YouBionic, a bionic hand project that has evolved far beyond its original brief. Check it out.
Emerging Tech

This crazy-looking robot uses microspines on its legs to climb up walls

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have built a bioinspired robot, which uses microspines on its feet to grip onto rough surfaces. This allows it to climb up very steep gradients. Check it out.
Emerging Tech

Got $400 million to burn? The world’s largest airplane is up for sale

Stratolaunch, the world's largest airplane, is up for sale. All it'll cost you is $400 million dollars. The brainchild of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the plane was supposed to make space travel more accessible and affordable.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Florida’s autonomous vehicle law, E3 updates, and more

On this episode of DT Live, we take a look at the biggest trending stories in tech, including Florida allowing fully autonomous vehicles on the road, Atari’s new gaming system, E3 updates, high-speed rail, and more.
Emerging Tech

Ex astris, scientia: Star Trek logo spotted on the surface of Mars

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been boldly going to Mars and capturing images since 2005, and now it has spotted something where no man has gone before: a structure on the planet's surface which will look familiar to Trekkies.
Emerging Tech

Adobe develops tool to identify Photoshopped images of faces

With deepfake videos making headlines, and campaigns against the Photoshopping of models, people are more aware than ever of the digital manipulation of images. Now Adobe wants to give tools to users to let them spot faked images.
Emerging Tech

Facebook builds virtual homes to train A.I. agents in realistic environments

Researchers at Facebook have created Habitat, which is a platform that enables rapid training for A.I. agents. They will receive thousands of hours of training in just a few minutes in the virtual homes.
Emerging Tech

Impossible Foods struggles to keep up with Impossible Burger demand

Red Robin and White Castle have reported Impossible Burger shortages, as it appears that Impossible Foods is struggling to keep up with demand. The company will be selling its meat-like patties in retail outlets within the year.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Plant-based shoes and a ukulele learning aid

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Pass the salt please: Table salt found on Jupiter’s moon Europa

Astronomers have spotted something unexpectedly familiar on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa -- sodium chloride, better known as table salt. This suggests the under-ice oceans on Europa are salty and similar to our oceans on Earth.