Varjo VR-2 - to boldly go where Boeing has not gone before

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Space is no longer the final frontier for VR, as Boeing’s Starliner programme begins using VR headsets from Varjo to replicate each phase of a commercial crew mission to the ISS during astronaut training

Quick read

➨ The Boeing Starliner spacecraft was developed in partnership with NASA
➨ In selecting Varjo’s VR-2, Boeing identified the headset’s human-eye resolution capabilities as crucial to making it possible for astronauts to train for precise procedures
➨ The company’s first corporate astronaut and the commander of the Starliner spacecraft will soon start using the Varjo VR training system regularly

The story

Boeing’s Starliner programme is using VR headsets from Varjo to replicate each phase of a commercial crew mission to the International Space Station (ISS) during astronaut training.

NASA astronauts have been training for spacewalks in VR for a long time, and Boeing Starliner programmer Connie Miller and spaceflight training software engineer Jim May wanted to expand use to the full spectrum of safety-critical scenarios.

Astronauts need crystal-clear vision to be able to read the display panels in the CST-100 Starliner capsule. The spacecraft’s crew console consists of two displays, each about the size of an iPad, which show mission-critical flight data such as the velocity and trajectory of the aircraft as it moves in space.

In particular, docking to the ISS is one of the most complex operations of a Starliner mission. Approaching the ISS in the Starliner spacecraft, developed in partnership with NASA, requires careful steering by following a cone-shaped path. Projecting the display panels and trajectory data precisely is crucial if VR is to be an effective training tool for such a vital operation.

Boeing developers in Australia had modelled the Starliner console using Unreal Engine, and in Houston, virtual training applications were integrated with physical simulators. Meanwhile, Miller and her colleagues took on the task of testing all available VR devices on the market, to obtain the resolution capabilities that had so far eluded them.

Varjo VR-2
Varjo VR-2

In selecting Varjo’s VR-2, which was released last year, Boeing identified the headset’s human-eye resolution capabilities, which deliver more than 60 pixels per degree in the centre of the field of view, as crucial to making it possible for astronauts to train for precise procedures such as docking, as well as unplanned dangerous situations.

Using Varjo’s VR-2, astronauts in the programme can also train remotely without the need for multiple physical simulators in different locations.

With software development largely behind them, the Boeing team is making its final evaluations and crews are set to begin using the headset full-time in their training.

The company’s first corporate astronaut and the commander of the Starliner spacecraft, Chris Ferguson, will soon start using the Varjo VR training system regularly in preparation for the programme’s crew flight test, which will be the first Starliner mission with humans on board.

“With our devices, astronauts can see and virtually interact with the switches and control panels inside their Starliner capsule and read the real-time data on their crew displays. Advancements like this have the potential to transform the way any pilot is trained.”

Niko Eiden, Varjo

Niko Eiden, chief executive officer and co-founder of Varjo, said he was proud to be delivering the technology that is pushing industrial training applications to their furthest reaches.

He said: “With our devices, astronauts can see and virtually interact with the switches and control panels inside their Starliner capsule and read the real-time data on their crew displays. Advancements like this have the potential to transform the way any pilot is trained.”

Main image: Jim May wearing the VR-2 headset
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