NASA is already planning the first manned space landing on Mars in the 2030s. But thanks to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4, anyone who owns a virtual reality headset will be able to explore the Red Planet in 2016.
NASA has teamed up with Fusion Media, MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory, and game developers from former studio Irrational Games to develop The Mars 2030 Experience for Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, and Samsung Gear VR in 2016. The free cross-platform virtual reality experience will also expand to Sony PlayStation VR and HTC Vive, thanks to Unreal Engine 4.
Julian Reyes, virtual reality producer for Fusion, said Unreal Engine 4 has enabled the development team to start building this experience with the highest regard to visual fidelity.
“We want people to truly feel like they are on Mars, and the engine is perfect to make this happen in VR,” Reyes said. “We've worked closely with Epic Games developers before and believe this engine is revolutionizing real-time graphics.”
Justin Sonnekalb, who was a technical designer at Irrational Games, said Unreal Engine 4’s visual programming for both materials and gameplay logic enabled the team to easily add new content and bring new systems online in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks.
“At the end of the first day of development we had a shared project environment with players able to walk and drive around terrain based on real Martian altimetry data from the University of Arizona’s HiRISE project,” Sonnekalb said. “Being able to get the fundamentals down so quickly is crucial for having the time and space to really bring Mars to life and create a truly immersive experience.”
Sonnekalb said Unreal provides numerous tools in its material editor and elsewhere that allowed the team to target multiple performance tiers of lighting quality and different shader models, ranging from OpenGL ES 2 on mobile to DirectX 11 on the most powerful gaming desktops, and previewing each at any time with just a couple clicks.
“The addition of the seamless Mobile Previewer in 4.8 was incredibly helpful for developers targeting a wide range of hardware profiles,” Sonnekalb said. “Early development generally emphasizes the higher-end as we work to establish the visual identity of a game, but these tools make it very easy to ensure you’re not boxing yourself into a corner on lower-performing hardware in the process.”
This partnership is the result of a Space Act Agreement between NASA and Fusion, in which the space agency will share the results of ongoing studies on space transportation systems, concepts of operations, and human health and performance.
Although more details will be announced during a panel at South by Southwest 2016, the virtual reality experience will bring to life a series of mini-missions that occur within the Mars habitat as well as on the planet’s surface. Players will be able to walk on the Red Planet as well as drive the Mars Rover.
Reyes said the virtual reality project began when a few game developers inside of Fusion began experimenting with the medium last year.
“It's evolved, and we see it as something very exciting to use to tell stories in ways that have not been experienced before,” Reyes said. “VR is uncharted territory and it’s part of Fusion's DNA to tread through it.”
According to Erin Mahoney, senior communications manager at NASA, space exploration has always been considered an experience for the elite few in the astronaut corps.
“An important part of NASA’s Journey to Mars is the work we are doing to make space more accessible to individuals and non-governmental entities,” Mahoney said. “With more aerospace companies making human spaceflight part of their core business models, we expect that spaceflight will be an option for more people in the future than it is today. Hopefully, individual immersive VR experiences in space will bring the concepts closer to reality for those who truly enjoy virtual life off of Earth.”
Mahoney said advances in virtual reality, which are quickly becoming the standard in the video game industry, also benefits NASA’s future.
“Our Mars astronauts are likely in kindergarten through ninth grade right now, so the ability to share with that generation the work that we are doing now to send them to Mars is a tremendous opportunity,” Mahoney said. “We hope they will learn and be inspired by all VR experiences that allow them to be immersed in space missions.”
The multiplatform Mars 2030 experience will also connect with a large audience through a Fusion television special, as well as a Twitch stream. It also will be available for iPhone and Android on iTunes and Google Play.
The plan is for additional NASA virtual reality experiences to come to life in the future, powered by Unreal Engine 4.