Mars is Getting an Unreal New Simulation for NASA Training

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A new gaming engine also has the potential to revolutionize how astronauts prepare for Mars missions.

Those of you who have been reading my column for a while now probably know that I have a serious fondness for video games. In addition to being a big fan of games, I also study the technology that comprises them. I have focused quite a few Nextgov stories over the years on video games about a variety of subjects, including gaming support groups combatting PTSD for veterans, how the military is using gaming technology in its latest simulations, government gamification efforts and even how certain video games could demonstrate why security perimeters are still important even in this era of cloud computing—using zombies of course.

Having spent a good part of my life since the early 1990s covering the video game industry, I’m in a good position to spot really game-changing trends (no pun intended) when they pop up. So, believe me when I say that the Unreal Engine 5 is going to change everything about gaming, and probably lots of other industries as well. But gaming is where it will first make its mark.

The Unreal Engine 5 is owned by Epic Games, who are probably best known as the makers of the popular Fortnite battle royale game. But Unreal Engine 5 is probably set to surpass even that fame very soon. Many gamers were first exposed to the new Unreal engine in a playable The Matrix Awakens demo released last December, which was free for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X players to download. After an on-rails shooter sequence, players could walk, drive and fly around one of the most realistic-looking cities ever rendered in a game. I was awe-struck at what the new engine could do.

Don’t worry if you couldn’t play the demo, because you can still watch a short movie that walks through the entire sequence, just not interactively. And it stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss from The Matrix as a bonus. When looking at the demo, keep in mind that while the combat sequences are cool, it’s really the wandering around portions of the demo in the last part that best shows the engine’s true potential.

The new engine can render some amazingly realistic places and landscapes, but that is not actually the most impressive feature. It’s the fact that it can do it in such a way as to keep the bandwidth and processer needs low, so you can create a photo-realistic, living environment without requiring a Hollywood studio or a supercomputer. 

It does this using techniques like Nanite Visualization, where programmers are able to dynamically create and render things like backgrounds or ambient effects without having to model each individual element. Besides enabling worlds to be created almost dynamically, it also allows many more objects to be displayed without slowing down the computers that are trying to run those simulations or games. There are many examples of people doing some crazy things with the new engine, like rendering millions of hyper-realistic, giant donuts and then flawlessly walking through the resulting simulation using an aging computer with a weak graphics card to drive it.

There are also examples where the new engine could be used for non-gaming applications, although it’s clear that the game industry is the most amped up about the possibilities right now. The following movie offers a good compilation of 20 really good demos created with the Unreal Engine 5.

Anyone can download Unreal Engine 5 for free and start using the tools to create their own amazing worlds or games. It’s free to use for creating linear content like films or for custom projects. It’s even free for most game developers, although the company notes that you have to pay a 5% royalty fee once your game earns over $1 million in revenue, so I guess keep that in mind.

Mars gets Unreal

The reason I was so focused on Unreal this week is because of the announcement that several companies including HeroX, Buendea and Epic Games were partnering up with NASA to sponsor a contest to create a virtual reality testbed using Unreal Engine 5, designed to help train astronauts for Mars missions. 

Called the NASA MarsXR Challenge, it tasks programmers with developing assets and scenarios for a virtual reality environment that model the types of tasks that may need to be performed during early human expeditions to Mars. The goal for NASA is to expose researchers and test subjects to immersive and realistic spacewalk activities while on the red planet. Information gained from these simulations could then help NASA prepare for future human exploration of Mars. The top performers in this challenge will split a $70,000 prize pool.

And because this effort is using the Unreal Engine, NASA can be very specific, and even demanding, about what the created scenarios should contain. Some of the requirements for the simulation include:

  • Full Martian days, with the bright orange hues of daytime transitioning to deep blues at night.
  • Realistic weather conditions for the planet and accurate Martian gravity.
  • 400 square kilometers (approximately 154 square miles) of realistic and researched Martian terrain.
  • Certain real NASA assets such as suits and rovers.

“Creators can use Unreal Engine to build realistic simulation scenarios to help prepare NASA for future missions, whether that’s to the moon or to Mars,” said Seb Loze, Unreal Engine business director for simulation at Epic Games. “Whether you’re a game designer, architect, hobbyist or rocket scientist, anyone can build with UE5, and we can’t wait to see the immersive simulations the community comes up with.”

If the scenarios the community creates for the challenge are as impressive as some of the demos I’ve seen, then NASA is going to have a really good teaching tool for their researchers and even future astronauts. I may never personally get to Mars, but I predict that some of these demos are going to be pretty close to the real thing. It’s going to be a real treat to strap on a VR headset and start exploring.

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