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TechnologyI'm the retired developer and manager of NASA's Virtual Reality lab. AMA!

Jun 16th 2017 by ubiquitous_DOUG • 13 Questions • 71 Points

Hi, my name is Dave Homan. After graduating college [EDIT: with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering] in 1974, I was employed at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas in order to develop and verify the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) auto-sequences. I created the first desktop Dynamic Skills Trainer for the SRMS. In 1990, I wrote the "Assembly Principles" used as the basis for assessment of the end-to-end assembly process for the International Space Station design.
From 1991 through my retirement in 2011, I managed the development and operations of the JSC Virtual Reality (VR) Lab, the facility that supports integrated extravehicular activity (EVA) and robotic manipulator systems training for both shuttle and space station crewmembers. Additional unique capabilities developed in the facility include the Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue (SAFER) flight simulator and a zero-gravity mass simulator system for training astronauts to handle large masses in orbit. In the VR Lab, I led the development and distribution of the Dynamic Onboard Ubiquitous Graphics (DOUG) software rendering package that is used in all ground-based man-in-the-loop on-orbit simulators- the backbone of the VR Lab and is used onboard the International Space Station. During my time as manager, the lab produced graphics for multiple IMAX 3D films and numerous television documentaries.

TL;DR: I developed NASA's Virtual Reality program in order to train astronauts for their space walks. AMA!

My daughter, Kelly, will be typing on my behalf on a (probably) throw-away account. We will begin answering questions at 11:30am EST on June 16, 2017.

My Proof: http://imgur.com/a/ah6Yd ; http://www.techrepublic.com/article/nasa-shows-the-world-its-20-year-vr-experiment-to-train-astronauts/

Q:

How are you?

A:

Fine, thank you. And yourself?


Q:

I am an undergrad majoring in computer science/mechanical engineering. Is a graduate degree M.S or Ph.D important to get a leadership role in future? I am not really fond of staying in school for extra 7+ years to get a Ph.D but I want to know what Ph.D means in long term. Having read several articles what Ph.D is like and to whom its for, I want to know the realistic view of Ph.D to industry people. Hit me hard with reality.

A:

Honestly, all I have is a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering and got to where I was almost entirely through personal experience and hard work. Advanced degrees are good in a competitive environment, but I would suggest work experience in the field before pursuing advanced degrees. The experience helps understand what specialties to study or that interest you the most.


Q:

Is it disorientating coming out of VR? Do you have to like readjust to reality after long VR simulations? Sounds crazy

A:

Short answer: no. At least, not anymore. Once we discovered how to generate the stereo views using the astronaut's correct eye-spacing, we no longer had trouble with queeziness or after effects following a session. Some crewmembers could be in VR for 3-4 hours at a time without any after-effects- other than the physical pain of having an HMD strapped to their head for that long.


Q:

What is your favourite dinosaur?

A:

The purple one.


Q:

What are some differences and similarities between VR now and then?

A:

The biggest difference is the rendering speeds of the graphics engines that improve the visual quality. The display resolution is also considerably better than it was in the beginning- 320x240p LCD displays in the 90's versus 1920x1080p OLED displays used in the VR lab today.


Q:

Have you personally tried current commercial VR like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive? Are you still interested in VR development?

A:

No, I have not tried either experience. Any work conducted with them would have occurred after my retirement. I think VR will always pique my interest, but it has certainly begun evolving beyond my understandings in the relatively short time I have been away. I did recently participate in an informational panel at the Living Computers Museum in Seattle, Washington and was interested to learn about some of the ideas people have about the future of VR. I look forward to advancements for the better, but my involvement will be minor if at all.


Q:

How efficient is virtual reality at training astronauts? How close does it feel to the real thing? How far has VR come for professional training?

Also, would there be any application of this type of VR for regular (nom astronaut) people?

Your work is super interesting, and quite amazing! Thanks for doing an AMA

A:

It's very efficient when compared to training in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (the giant swimming pool)- which is a very expensive resource to use in both time and manpower support. VR is easily reconfigurable based on the mission, requires a minimal amount of support, and can be used at a moment's notice. During my tenure, the VR lab supported over 3400 crew sessions. Astronauts who flew in space thought it was very realistic in a number of ways that could otherwise not be reproduced on earth. For example: In space, the only sensation that you have of being upside down or rightside up is visual whereas on the ground, you would experience the physical sensations- i.e. the blood runs to your head, so you would know you were upside down, even with your eyes closed. VR helps establish the visual sensation without the physical sensation. Another example: The zero-g, mass-handling simulation robot (aka Charlotte), which can reproduce the motions of large objects in weightlessness, has been validated by astronauts who have handled the real objects in space. The same is true with the SAFER (jetpack) simulation.

Since its first use in astronaut training in support of the first Hubble servicing mission, it has become a standard of astronaut training. To view examples, google "STS-133 Virtual Reality Training" - starting there, you can find numerous videos showing aspects of training sessions.

'This type of VR' is extremely specific to the programming, so no, not entirely. However, our work in the lab has been studied by other fields for potential application.

EDIT: grammar


Q:

What are your thoughts on the shuttle program now that its been 6 years since a space shuttle last flew?

A:

It was a great program, too bad they canceled it. Since then, we still have no way of getting Americans to orbit in our own vehicles.


Q:

What commercially sold software/hardware did you use in your lab, if any? Did you use any game engines to develop your VR software, (such as Unity or Unreal)? Any lessons learned regarding the tools you used?

A:

None; everything was built in house- other than the original helmets and the tracking sensors. Same goes for the software, including the model-building tools to support the graphic displays. When we started this, there was no commercially-available software, and there still isn't any software that can support the EVA training application.

Lesson learned: Unbeknownst to the user, everybody is watching you.


Q:

[deleted]

A:

No, I never have. I did a lot of wind tunnel testing in my early career where that type of visualization would have been much more interesting than the paper plots we used to look at.


Q:

[deleted]

A:

I can't say that I've ever played any. Personally using VR is a challenge because I can't actually see 3-D renderings.


Q:

I am going to cinema

A:

1) Hopefully VR won't become as prevalent as smart phones that have half the population walking around completely oblivious to anything else happening around them.

2) I really don't have a good feeling about "living" in a gaming world. The astronauts were never really dealing with a fake world. Everything in the environment was "real" dimensionally correct models of the actual hardware and they moved around that world the same way they would in space (they translate along the structure using only their hands, they are standing in a foot restraint attached to the end of the robotic arm being moved around by the arm operator, or they are "flying" around using the SAFER jet pack.) Spacewalking is a misnomer in that they never "walk" anywhere. The simulation has nothing preprogrammed into it, nobody is shooting at you, you don't get points or additional lives for doing anything. The astronauts use it to workout how they plan to interact with one another, what coordinate systems they will use when they give directions, etc., the same way they do when they're working together in the large pool with real hardware. It's actually pretty slow and methodical work. Now, in terms of physical responses, I answered a previous question related to this, but I'll expound. It isn't uncommon for those using various VR products to experience disorientation or nausea if the graphics are not generated according to the individual user's eye spacing. This was one of the obstacles we had to overcome in the lab- adding parameters to the software that could be individually modified based on the user's eye spacing. Any commercialized product would need to be able to do the same in order to maybe avoid issues like motion sickness and allow extended use.

3) It probably has interesting possibilities for studying anatomy, like in the movie "Fantastic Voyage". Being able to move around in models of the human skull could give new meaning to the phrase "In one ear and out the other."


Q:

As a me did you teach yourself to code or did NASA offer training?

A:

When I was in college, I did have to take courses on coding so that is where I gained most of my knowledge on it.