This was how an event like the Perseverance rover landing needs to be experienced. Full-bodied, immersive and enhanced, the next best thing to actually being there yourself
Chris Madsen held an informal watch party of the Perseverance rover landing on Engage yesterday and clearly demonstrated the power of virtual reality to improve online social experiences, education and communication. I was lucky enough to attend.
The successful landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars, in the deep Jezero crater near the planet’s equator, marked the end of a 203-day journey that NASA and the world had to experience at a distance.
Indeed, the rover traversed some 293 million miles over the course of that period and yesterday we could only watch as the rover entered the Red Planet’s atmosphere, descended and, thankfully, landed.
The distance and complete lack of orbiting infrastructure around Mars means NASA cannot broadcast such a show to audiences on Earth. Instead, the US space agency live streamed video and audio from Perseverance mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, added commentary and interviews, and produced a 3D simulation to help audiences visualise events as they were likely happening.
Socialise, learn and communicate, but better
Immersive VR Education’s Engage virtual reality learning, communications and events tool was able to build on this by enabling Madsen’s watch party to view the stream on a recreation of the surface of Mars.
I and some 40 attendees, embodied with astronaut avatars, were able to hike or teleport around the large and rocky landscape, to get a strong sense of what it must be like to walk on the surface of the Red Planet, as the Perseverance rover would soon be doing itself.
Guest NASA Solar System Ambassadors, including Scott Nebeker, were able to attend and answer questions in real time, while Madsen added several surprises to make the whole experience more immersive.
A 3D model of Perseverance’s predecessor, Curiosity, accurately recreated the technological achievement that is a NASA-built rover for exploring alien worlds. The model even simulated how it interacts with the planet and carries out its mission to search for life.
There was also time for a virtual reality simulation of the Curiosity landing, which showed the rover arriving in orbit around Mars before descending and landing on the planet, accompanied by running commentary from the mission control team.
The route across the surface of the planet and up into some mountains was full of alien artifacts and even dinosaur skeletons to further enhance the experience and support the NASA ambassadors as they explained Perseverance’s mission.
The standout moment came when Madsen took us on a helicopter tour of the environment, so that we could get the same bird-eye view of the Jezero crater as the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, when it makes the very first powered flight on another world.
And, of course, we watched the NASA live stream as the Perseverance rover successfully landed on Mars and sent back its first images of the surface. This was when Engage’s social virtual reality capabilities were most clear, with everyone in attendance celebrating the mission’s success as they might had they been together in the real world.
The next best thing to actually being there yourself
All in all, this was how an event like the Perseverance rover landing needs to be experienced. Full-bodied, immersive and enhanced, the next best thing to actually being there yourself.
I used my Oculus Quest 2 to attend, and the headset proved more than equal to the task. I did have one interesting conversation with someone who attended a similar watch party, but in Mozilla Hubs and on their laptop.
They said that this setup lacked the social virtual reality aspect that I found so impressive with Engage and Oculus Quest 2, and left them wondering why they didn’t just stream the event through a competent service, perhaps on a smartphone or smart TV.
This is a crucial point to consider when exploring your options for virtual reality and other immersive technologies. What do you want to get out of it? If you’re happy for a passive audience to simply watch a video, do you really need to invest in headsets? On the flipside, social virtual reality really enhances the learning and communications experience, particularly the more immersive kind, making them both more effective as a result.
I’ll add that the only drawback to using Oculus Quest 2 was that I was unable to share photos as the event was happening (and the lower resolution is an issue), because they were located on the mobile headset itself, so I had to retrieve them via USB cable once we’d finished. This is where PC virtual reality stands out, because they better connect your headset with existing social media platforms, via a capable laptop or desktop computer, and make sharing that much easier.
Don’t forget that you can read more about Engage and Immersive VR Education in the latest issue of VRWorldTech Magazine, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of tools such as Engage and Mozilla Hubs for remote learning and communication.
That’s all from me. Here’s to watching the first person walking on the surface of Mars in the not-too-distant future!