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Earthlight: How Devs Are Working With NASA To Create A Virtual International Space Station

Sitting in a tin can

As I try to detach a pipe on the virtual International Space Station, which I've been scrambling across, I'm suddenly thrown backwards into space. I don't flinch but apparently most people who play the Earthlight [official site] demo do – it then makes sense to me why one of the team had offered to take pictures of me playing. Earthlight is a virtual reality experience which is aiming to recreate experiences aboard the International Space Station, which sits in low Earth orbit and acts as a research laboratory. The developers are working in collaboration with NASA to shape the experience.

I am flagging up the fact I was unfazed by being thrown off into space in case anyone from NASA is reading this and wants to recruit me as a cool astronaut space reporter, but while I still have a terrestrial job I should probably tell you about Earthlight and the conversation I had with its creative lead, Emre Deniz.

My first question is to ask what would have happened if I'd let go of the space station before the scripted demo blast propelled me backwards. I was going to try doing so if that blast hadn't happened. Uh, NASA recruiters can probably stop reading at this point.

"Because the engineers had a lot of fun throwing me off the ISS repeatedly we decided to tether people to it. The tenth time they did it it stopped being funny because the rendering of the Earth below is actually quite high fidelity so it doesn't really become pixelated regardless of your proximity. It's a huge game asset. You can really fall for a while before it stops being immersive which isn't fun if you're in my situation there so we do tether people to it! In the commercial release of the game we'll be looking at implementing a number of safety measures that are quite realistic to how NASA deals with these thing. That's parallel to our goal of delivering an authentic game experience."

I was trying Earthlight out at GDC and Deniz explained that immediately after the show the team were decamping to Houston to spend time at the Johnson Space Centre and the Sonny Carter Training Facility. Both are home to various NASA training programs with the latter also housing the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory where trainee astronauts can use a water environment to simulate many aspects of a weightless environment. The developers will be touring as well as meeting their NASA contacts face-to-face.

Deniz tells me that NASA initially became involved with the Australian studio through a Reddit post.

"They messaged and also commented on a thread I made on Reddit on r/Space which was to show the environment captures we developed. It was essentially to show people the graphic fidelity of the tech demo and show space enthusiasts there was some really cool stuff coming out nowadays that catered more for that type of interest. The highest rated comment was from a simulation engineer who touched base and said, hey we're working on the same stuff, let's talk. Then I received a direct message from a senior member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Following that we've had a number of engagements with NASA which has essentially led to our collaboration with them."

That's included discussions with people who man the ISS, who train astronauts, who build suits for potential Mars trips...

With regards to the suits, it was actually tricky to look around during the demo as your field of view through the visor of the space suit is limited. I ask whether there are compromises to be made in terms of staying faithful to real astronaut experiences and enjoyable game experiences.

"We started talking to a psychologist that works with the ESA [European Space Agency] and they're doing a lot of really interesting stuff as well. He gave me some critical advice in regard to how astronauts move their necks around inside of those spaces because you're right, they also have the problem that they can't see inside of a very rigid structure. Because the suits are actually just vehicles. They, I think, are the smallest portable vehicles that are in space, essentially.

"The idea is that any type of movement is essentially or fundamentally risky for astronauts so they try to rotate their heads around and can be very dextrous. So for us it's hard to replicate that but we need to be able to have that mechanism in order to facilitate good game play because people want to look around and enjoy themselves. We're looking at things like the Z3 suit which is an expansion of the Z2. These are the exoplanet suits that are being developed to go to Mars and the Moon. They have large bubble lens areas."

I've checked out that line of space suits and they're probably best described as like how Buzz Lightyear looks in Toy Story with the bubble dome over his head, although there's also something a bit Sontaran about the Z2.

"That's one way we're looking at it so instead of having this closed off covered helmet or the EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) which has got radiation and micro-meteorite protection over the visor area we'll be looking at maybe exploring a bit more, giving ground a little in that authenticity but giving more to the player. We're talking to NASA about that kind of stuff."

The only person I've spoken to who has been on the International Space Station was Michael Foale because he was giving a talk about growing plants in space as part of a Kew Gardens lecture series. The ISS is also home to a host of other experiments and activities so I ask what tasks Earthlight will offer – plants? Missions? Repairs?

"The project will start off with giving you the necessary training for being deployed to the ISS. It covers the entire journey of being an astronaut so it starts off with you in the NBL [Neutral Buoyancy Lab]. It's where astronauts are trained underwater to get used to movement in weightless environments and be able to manipulate objects in a deliberate and considered manner. The reason we do this is we want people in virtual reality to become accustomed to being in this environment.

"In terms of the missions we're looking at internal and external missions on the ISS. These will range from being able to move other astronauts, being able to conduct maintenance missions and being able to do what's called a technological readiness test or a flight test of the Z3 suit."

In addition to space gardening, I've also been interested in art projects involving space. One of those was by Nelly Ben Hayoun – her work is fascinating and I suggest you check it out but the piece I was particularly thinking of is called The Soyuz Chair. You don a headset and blindfold then sit in a comfy reclining armchair set at a slight angle. The vibrations of the chair, the noise of the headphones and the angle of the seating combine to create this bizarre sensation of being launched into orbit. I tried it once and had a moment or two where my body was convinced it was weightless.

That didn't happen with Earthlight which, admittedly, is probably part of why I didn't freak out when I was knocked clear of the ISS. With The Soyuz Chair in mind I ask whether the team are experimenting with any techniques that might help create the illusion of weightlessness.

"We're doing a lot of QA and design work in our office now as in we're constantly rolling out new mechanics and trying new things and seeing if they work to facilitate that exact experience. We received some tips and some academic advice on how we can do these things, ranging from special chairs and different seating positions as well as looking at different movement mechanics as well so things feel maybe a little more weighted or more lagged or... yeah. There's also the idea that in the context of the gameplay world when you're able to see weightless objects floating around that helps immerse you in that environments as well."

Deniz goes on to say that the team are much better at simulating velocity now: "[We] are much closer to having things like velocity, being able to fling yourself around or pivot around objects and rotate your body based on the anchor or where you've grabbed. We haven't experienced any motion sickness which is great and people who have had more and more exposure to it appear to have developed I guess a cognitive ability to move around an environment. People who have tested it in the office are able to move around this environment which is weightless. They'll move themselves upside down, they'll rotate their body around, they'll fling themselves from handlebar to handlebar... it's really interesting to watch."

The thing here, and with all of the GDC virtual reality experiences is that by necessity they've all needed to be relatively short. I've not had any experiences with a game that have been longer than about 20 minutes so I don't know what it's like to play for long periods – whether it's disorienting or how tired your eyes get or any of those things. One of the things I'm curious about is whether, if you manage to convince someone they're weightless for a chunk of time, can they just step out of the experience back into the meat world or do they need a gentler exit?

Deniz tells me that "around 70-90 minutes in virtual reality does provide a jarring exit when someone takes a headset off." At that point, he says, "the brain believes it's in a different location than it really is and, taking the headset off, your world, your physical location and rotation are mismatched to what your digital avatar is doing. We definitely found there's an interesting challenge for us to explore and based on discussions we've had with some of the people here on the VR scene including people with similar demos, there are techniques that are coming out now so being able to fade out of the experience or provide some sort of centering environment element - people are aware of what is up and what's the ground level and things like that - they're all setting the right direction for designing that exit in VR."

In terms of a release date, Deniz tentatively mentions Q3 this year. The plan is for an episodic release.

"I believe this is the best way to reduce the risk of consumers in terms of buying into virtual reality products," says Deniz. "Earthlight will release with something we call Episode Zero, which is the NBL training and that will allow us to give people these base experiences and see whether or not they're comfortable with virtual reality. So it's an entry point.

"As we develop more content on our side as developers we'll keep freely updating Episode Zero, so one day you'll be learning how to fix an ammonia pump on the ISS then the next day we'll teach you how to close the bulkhead door or to operate the fire safety equipment. That will give people an insight into what's coming up in features as well without having to invest in other content along the way.

"I believe Episode One is a deployment onto the ISS. Episode Two is essentially a couple of really cinematic missions I can't talk about and Episode Three is where things become a lot more... giving you the freedom to utilise as much of your skills as possible in order to have a gameplay experience in the ISS as well. The idea being by that stage you're already aware, based on the training missions, what kind of content we're developing so there's no bad surprises along the way as well."

There's no pricing announced as yet but Deniz say it will be in keeping with how they've structured the experience.

Basically the idea is that there should be "a low risk barrier to entry and if they like Earthlight they can continue."

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