At SXSW, ‘Mars 2030’ offers a virtual tour of the Red Planet

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The year is 2030. You wake up in a space camp on Mars, as part of the first crew to explore the planet. You suit up, stow your gear, and drive a rover out on the red plains.

That’s the premise of a virtual reality world under construction at media outfit Fusion. It draws on research from NASA and MIT to create a realistic game-like adventure that takes players on a tour of Mars.

“Our biggest intent was to envision what this mission looks like in 2030,” said Julian Reyes, a developer at Fusion who was part of The Mars 2030 Experience.

At the tech culture conference SXSW in Austin this weekend the team will debut a first version of the product. A free public version of the experience is due to launch in the fall.

Curious space enthusiasts can explore the virtual world using existing eyewear like the Oculus Rift, Google’s Cardboard, or Samsung’s Gear VR. Gamers who are already familiar with the Steam marketplace can find a version of the adventure there.

“It covers all [aspects of] the daily life of an astronaut,” Reyes said.

Astronauts and NASA staff who drive space rovers are routinely trained on simulators that mimic the environment of their mission in space. But this is a rare case in which a sophisticated simulation can be taken for a spin by anyone.

A key contributor to the landscape was a report created by a group of MIT students in October 2014 that analyzed the needs of sending a crew to Mars by about 2030.

Sydney Do, one of the authors of the report, and a graduate student at the Strategic Engineering Research Group at MIT, was commissioned to join the development crew for Mars 2030 as a technical advisor.

It’s a step up from watching Matt Damon in the “The Martian,” Do said. “You watch “The Martian” through a 2D screen. You can’t explore the planet while walking,” Do said. “In this experience you can explore for yourself and immerse yourself in that environment.”

But Reyes acknowledges that things may change by the time the first crew lands on Mars. “Maybe some day in the future someone says, ‘Wow we were so wrong,’ ” he said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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