Astronomy Cast Ep. 471: Best Modern Sci Fi for the Science Lover – Part 3: Human Computer Relations

It’s time to talk computers, and how we’re going to be dealing with them in the future. In our next segment on modern sci-fi, we talk about the future of the human-computer interface.

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Take A Virtual Reality Tour Of Pluto

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons probe made history as it passed within 12,500 km (7,800 mi) of Pluto, thus making it the first spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet up close. And since this historic flyby, scientists and the astronomy enthusiasts here at Earth have been treated to an unending stream of breathtaking images and scientific discoveries about this distant world.

And thanks to the New York Times and the Universities Space Research Association‘s Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas, it is now possible to take a virtual reality tour of Pluto. Using the data obtained by the New Horizon’s instruments, users will be able to experience what it is like to explore the planet using their smartphone or computer, or in 3D using a VR headset.

The seven-minute film, titled “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart“, which is narrated by science writer Dennis Overbye of the New York Times – shows viewers what it was like to approach the dwarf planet from the point of the view of the New Horizon’s probe. Upon arrival, they are then able to explore Pluto’s surface, taking in 360 degree views of its icy mountains, heart-shaped plains, and largest moon, Charon.

This represents the most detailed and clear look at Pluto to date. A few decades ago, the few maps of Pluto we had were the result of close observations that measured changes in the planet’s total average brightness as it was eclipsed by its largest moon, Charon. Computer processing yielded brightness maps, which were very basic by modern standards.

In the early 2000s, images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope were processed in order to create a more comprehensive view. Though the images were rather undetailed, they offered a much higher resolution view than the previous maps, allowing certain features – like Pluto’s large bright spots and the dwarf planet’s polar regions – to be resolved for the first time.

However, with the arrival of the New Horizons mission, human beings have been finally treated to a close-up view of Pluto and its surface.  This included Pluto’s now-famous heart-shaped plains, which were captured by the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) while it was still several days away from making its closest approach.

Our evolving understanding of Pluto, represented by images taken by Hubble in 2002-3 (left), and images taken by New Horizons in 2015 (right). Credit:
Our changing impression of Pluto, represented by images taken by Hubble in 2002-3 (left), and images taken by the New Horizons mission in 2015 (right). Credit:

This was then followed-up by very clear images of its surface features and atmosphere, which revealed floating ice hills, mountains and icy flow plains, and surface clouds composed of methane and tholins. From all of these images, we now know what the surface of this distant world looks like with precision. All of this has allowed scientists here at Earth to reconstruct, in stunning detail, what it would be like to travel to Pluto and stand on its surface.

Amazingly, only half of New Horizon’s images and measurements have been processed so far. And with fresh data expected to arrive until this coming October, we can expect that scientists will be working hard for many years to analyze it all. One can only imagine what else they will learn about this mysterious world. And one can only hope that any news findings will be uploaded to the app (and those like it)!

The VR app can be downloaded at the New York Times VR website, and is available for both Android and Apple devices. It can also be viewed using headset’s like Google Cardboard, a smartphone, and a modified version exists for computer browsers.

Virtual Reality and Space: From NASA to Smartphones

With the ever-increasing affordability of technology, Virtual Reality is making its way into people’s homes. Systems like the Oculus Rift, and Sony’s PlayStation VR when it’s released next Fall, are becoming increasingly common. These systems, and others to come, will allow people to not only watch VR movies and play VR games, but also to explore space from the comfort of their own homes. This won’t be the only intersection of Virtual Reality and space, though.

NASA, as is often the case, has already blazed a trail when it comes to VR and space. They’ve been using VR to train astronauts for quite a while now. They have a whole lab dedicated to it, called the Virtual Reality Lab, located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. At this facility, astronauts use VR to prepare them for working aboard the ISS.

NASA has flirted with other VR solutions as well. They used an Oculus Rift and a VR Treadmill combined with Mars footage from the Curiosity rover to create a virtual walk on the surface of Mars.

NASA’s use of VR is the most advanced around, naturally, but it’s not something most of us will ever encounter. For the rest of us, VR is making it’s way into our space-loving lives in other ways.

A company called Immersive Education has created a VR simulation of the Apollo 11 mission. It allows users to re-live the mission. You can look around the inside of the spacecraft, look out the window toward Earth, even watch and listen as astronauts walk on the surface of the Moon. The company promises “Historically accurate spacecraft interiors and exteriors.”

Here, Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke checks out the Apollo 11 VR on Oculus Rift.

Companies DEEP Inc. and Freedom 360 collaborated with the Canadian Space Agency to create a VR film called “The Edge of Space.” They used 360 degree cameras to record the view from a balloon that reached an altitude of 40km above Earth. Check out their video here. To get the real interactive effect, visit their page to download their app and view it.

Then there’s what I call virtual VR. Or you could call it “headsetless” VR, I guess. Though it lacks the immersion of full VR, it’s still cool. It’s a virtual planetarium from Escapist Games Limited, called Star Chart. Star Chart allows users to cruise through the Solar System and the Universe, checking out stars, nebulae, planets and other objects along the way.

This is just the beginning of VR’s entertainment and educational capabilities. With the growing affordability of VR, and the technological advancements to come, there’s going to some great implementations of VR technology for we space enthusiasts. I expect that in the next few years, we wannabe space explorers will be able to explore the surface of other worlds with VR, right in our own living rooms.

How To Experience ‘Zero Gravity’ Without Leaving Home: Virtual Reality

If you don’t have a few thousand dollars to spend on a “Vomit Comet” ride, and especially if you can’t afford to buy a ticket for a future weightless joyride in a spacecraft, virtual reality remains the best option to “experience” weightlessness.

There’s a new game available for the virtual-reality headset Oculus Rift that lets people play with objects in microgravity to see what happens next.

Called “Weightless”, the game appears to have a person zooming around a sort of space station and playing with things including pill bottles and cubes, seeing how they spin and soar without gravity’s pull weighing them down. (Note that the author does not have an Oculus Rift and could not test the game out for this article.)

“I wanted the player to have an experience that’s only possible in VR [virtual reality],” wrote creator Martin Schubert on the game’s webpage. “That means taking advantage of the ability to look around in any direction and having good spatial awareness. This led to investigating a weightless environment that allowed freedom of movement in any direction.”

Schubert wrote that the game is available in prototype form for the Oculus Rift DK2, and is best used with a head-mounted Leap Motion finger-tracking sensor. Bear in mind that the Oculus is still very much a prototype gaming platform, but that being said, the experience looks like a lot of fun for those of us lucky to have one. You can learn more about the hardware requirements and download information here.

Our Virtual Reality Universe


What if the Universe was in fact a simulation? A product of some information processor, creating space and time, energy and matter? What if the Big Bang was the whole simulation booting up, beginning billions of years of space and time calculations? Can we possibly understand our consciousness as a subroutine in an advanced number crunching machine? A new paper published by the Centre for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, University of Auckland, asks us to keep an open mind and suggests if we look at the complexity of physical laws of our known universe, many paradoxes may be explained if we view our physical reality as a virtual reality.

Virtual reality is a term that has been used frequently in sci-fi novels and movies since the early 1980’s but the term artificial reality can be traced back to the 1970’s. Movies such as Tron, The Matrix and Lawnmower Man centre around the possibility of fully immersible virtual realities. It is only very recently however, with advanced interactive gaming systems and the design of complex virtual worlds online and on home computers, that we can experience worlds of sufficient detail that we can be fooled into believing what we are experiencing approximates physical reality. Additional systems have been engineered to provide the user with feedback from the virtual world they are interacting with (whether it is a rumble in the joypad or wired gloves giving the user a sense of touch), enhancing the experience beyond purely a visual one.

Taking a look at physics in our universe, many paradoxes and uncertainties exist. Quantum physics is one such field highlighted in Brian Whitworth’s research and considered to be “strange” physics, giving some justification to his theory we might actually be immersed in a virtual reality world:

While virtual reality theory seems strange, so do other current theories of physics, e.g. the many-world view of quantum physics proposes that each quantum choice divides the universe into parallel universes. […] Even relatively main-stream physics theories are quite strange.” – The Physical World as a Virtual Reality.

Although this research pushes the envelope of the most outlandish physics theories, it is not so hard to imagine that advanced information processing may be complex enough to govern the dynamics of an entire universe (if the information processor was advanced enough). Our physical universe, after all, is approximated through physical equations and mathematical reasoning, why can’t the laws of our “physical” reality be approximated by virtual reality? If this can be done, do we actually exist in a virtual world?

Source: publication (abstract and full paper download)