NASA Asks for Public Help with the Second MarsXR Challenge

cokada/Getty Images

The second challenge will feature a mission storyboarding component, enabling non-programmers to participate.

Last year, we reported on the unique NASA MarsXR Challenge, a crowd-sourced competition designed to create a virtual/hybrid-reality that can approximate Mars exploration. The effort was a cooperative endeavor between NASA and several other companies and organizations, including HeroX, Buendea and Epic Games.

The realistic VR environment was made possible by the introduction of the Unreal Engine 5 from Epic Games. The new engine lives up to its name, using advanced techniques like Nanite Visualization to enable the building of some of the most realistic and interactive virtual landscapes ever created. Of course, this technology has been embraced by the video game industry, with many playable demos released, including a very compelling one based on The Matrix movies created by Epic Games themselves. Many video games are also starting to incorporate Unreal Engine 5 technology into their upcoming titles.

For NASA, Unreal Engine 5 has enabled the creation of a workspace that mimics Mars almost perfectly. This includes full Martin days with bright orange hues of sunlight and cold nights filled with deep blues seeping across the landscape as the sun sets. The testbed also has realistic weather conditions happening across hundreds of square miles of virtual Martian terrain. You can check out an impressive NASA Advanced Operations Concept Lab video to see it in action.

Nextgov talked with NASA Human Performance Engineer Patrick Estep about the MarsXR Challenge. Our first question was how confident NASA was when reaching out to the public for help with the original challenge.

“The thought of supporting NASA’s mission and crafting something that may be seen or experienced by astronaut-like subjects is super exciting; however, we also recognized that there was a significant barrier to entry with that challenge because VR development is not a common-knowledge skillset,” Estep said. “Not just that, but the unique subject matter knowledge with what kinds of things we expect astronauts to do on the moon, Mars and beyond can also be quite intricate and specialized, so communicating what we are really after with that challenge was a bit difficult.”

Despite some initial concerns, the first challenge was a huge success, with one public team called Overheat earning the most awards, and a big share of the $70,000 prize. NASA showed off some of the scenarios and assets that Overheat and other teams created on YouTube. Estep says that NASA was extremely happy with the results of the original challenge.

“We honestly had no idea what to expect going in,” Estep said. “But I think the final tally was about 1,800 registered competitors spread across 200 teams. All of that resulted in 34 polished submissions, and that was down-selected to nine award winners. We’re still working on incorporating those submissions into our XR environment, but we’re very excited to start our research and simulation efforts with the new content.”

Now, NASA is back with the second MarsXR Challenge, and this time, anyone can participate in part of the challenge, even if they do not have any experience with VR programming. That is because this time around, NASA is looking for help not just with programming new missions for its VR testbed, but also storyboarding them out and designing unique challenges for their simulation environment. So, they need creative people who can script new missions, and then technical folks who can put those missions into the simulation. Like before, there is a $70,000 prize which will be split among the winners from both groups.

“The idea is that we can reach a more general, broader audience and get more people excited about contributing, while simultaneously helping us communicate and home in on the kinds of virtual EVA—extra vehicular activity, basically walking around in a space suit—simulation content that we’re looking to develop,” Estep said. “If we execute this well, then we should seamlessly transition into a second phase of the challenge that is again focused on the VR/XR development—but with more clear guidance and expectations from us on what we’re looking for, which is essentially development of flight-like exploration EVA tasks and operational concepts.”

That is why this time around, phase one of the new challenge will focus on storyboarding, which is basically designing missions to run within the VR environment. The really interesting thing about phase one is that, while those creating storyboards need to keep in mind certain aspects of VR—like the ability to look around or even travel in any direction—the storyboarded missions require no programming skills at all. NASA is even providing a tool called Mural to help with the storyboarding process, although it will accept properly formatted storyboards in any format, even PDFs.

Creative people who think they can design good missions for NASA have until the end of the month to register for phase one so they can get started creating those storyboards.  

Phase two of the challenge does of course require the ability to program VR scenarios using the Unreal Engine 5. Developers are encouraged to use the winning solutions from the first phase of the challenge and develop them into VR missions, although they can also go out on their own and develop new missions. Phase two will begin after the first phase is completed and judged.

When asked about the use of VR, Estep explained how that technology was becoming increasingly important for an agency like NASA.

“One of the best things that VR brings to the table is the immersion,” Estep said. “NASA has several suited testing analogs that can simulate the physical feel of being in a spacesuit at partial gravity. You can check out the Neutral Buoyancy Lab [NBL] or Active Response Gravity Offload System [ARGOS] videos on YouTube. Being able to immerse someone in a foreign environment and better replicate the cognitive demands of completing an EVA really adds another layer to a simulation.” 

Virtual reality can accomplish some of the same things as people would experience underwater at NBL or when using ARGOS, but in an environment that fully mimics the actual places they will be exploring.

“You start to see things maybe you didn’t see before, like how you might have to work in various planetary lighting conditions, or the challenges associated with navigating an unexplored region and ensuring you don’t get lost. Or you might even learn even simpler things like where to put your tools and equipment before you start work,” Estep said. “Being able to see and experience things like that really puts a whole new spin on how someone can approach something—and we can do it all with relatively inexpensive hardware using VR, very quickly and controllably, at a moderately-high fidelity with no real risk to the subjects.”

And speaking of reality, much of what is being accomplished in virtual reality today is possible because of the rapid and unprecedented advancements in computer graphics.

“With the recent release of Unreal Engine 5, in addition to next generation graphic cards and higher resolution XR displays, the realism of these simulations is approaching a point where it’s almost indistinguishable from reality,” Estep said. “With some of the new features in Unreal Engine 5, the simulation quality can be greatly improved without dragging on your computer’s performance, which is critical both for VR and limiting ‘cyber sickness.’ Plus, rather than having an in-house graphics engine limited to NASA and approved users, Unreal Engine 5 has a large, supportive community to allow anyone to learn, develop and eventually participate in the MarsXR Challenges.”

The first challenge was a success for NASA, and the second is just getting started, and Estep said that he hopes there will be many more of these types of public outreach programs presented in the future. “Not only are we generating quality content to research and test with, but it’s also a ton of fun for us to interact with the public and share some of what we see, know and experience,” he said.

The second NASA MarsXR Challenge is now live, with registration open for the public until March 30.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys