NASA Curiosity game

How NASA puts Earth-bound explorers in the driver's seat on Mars

No human has ever been to Mars, but a select few individuals have made tracks in its virgin red soil. Like skiers getting to the top of a mountain at sunrise to enjoy the fresh powder, scientists at NASA’s JET Propulsion Laboratory are carving paths through the dusty Martian landscape. Robotic rovers such as Curiosity, Spirit and Pathfinder have become our eyes on the alien terrain, sentinels of the human race 154 million miles from home.

It’s pretty exciting stuff, but only a few people have had the experience of navigating the red planet. Human Interfaces Engineer Victor Luo from NASA JPL wanted to change that. He’s part of a JPL group unofficially called The Conductor Team because they strive to make it possible for everyone to control lots of robots at the same time, like a conductor controlling an orchestra, a process he calls tele-exploration.

The team’s ultimate goal is to one day have a Star Trek-like holodeck where the public can go and share in real space exploration. That day may be a ways off, but even now, it’s possible to explore Mars virtually through games.

Luo said that part of NASA’s mission is to inspire the next generation of space explorers. To do that, and to bring the excitement of investigating Mars to the public, Luo thought that gamification might be the answer.

There were two platforms the agency was interested in getting into. The first was the PC, of course, which has the largest installed base of potential players. The second was the Xbox 360 gaming console, where NASA had zero presence. Making a game for either platform is something that most federal agencies don’t have much experience doing.

“When we started out, we really didn’t know what we were doing,” Luo said. “We locked ourselves in a windowless room, couldn’t talk to anyone about it, and just tried to see how we could make the game.”

At first, Luo said, they experimented with OpenGL and some of the other graphics-focused application programming interfaces. But they quickly learned that making a game from scratch was a bigger project than they thought. “One of the first things we found was not to try and make the game interface ourselves,” Luo said. “Instead, we learned early on to use an existing engine.”

Design tool offers leg up

One of the tools brought to bear was Unity 3D. The Unity tools are unique in that they offer aspiring game-makers the ability to take their ideas and turn them into reality without needing to be a formally trained game designer. And once the game is created, Unity can make it run on almost any platform, including mobile devices running Android and iOS.

“Previously, games required a professional game developer,” said Davey Jackson, Unity’s director of simulation and virtualization. “But with the Unity tools, developers can tweak rule sets, move objects around in a 3D space and bring their creations to life. We think games are kind of like the Great American Novel. Everybody has one in them. Unity helps bring those games to life.”

The Unity editor comes packed with thousands of 3D models, textures and rules. With very little training, users can animate their creations and make them act however a game requires. “You can take a block, your object, and then compact it, move it around, make it climb or even smile,” Jackson said. “To do that you drag and drop different rules onto it, or create some of your own that are unique to your game. And once you have the rules in place, it’s easy to take those created characters and move them along to the next game in a series without having to duplicate your work.”

The way the various objects, textures and rule sets can be re-purposed from game to game is evident at NASA’s Explore Mars website, where five similar games are available, with one more on the way soon. All of the games use the Unity tools, and all can be run from any PC without the need to transfer an .exe file to a user’s computer. They all draw on a similar rule and object set, but all present a different aspect of the Mars exploration project.

In the games, users can follow along with the rover Spirit as it searches for water on Mars, travel in real-time with the rover Curiosity as seeks signs of life, probe every nook and cranny of the Gale Crater, learn about and configure your own rover, and free-drive around Mars.

Luo said the simulations use real telemetry data from the mission, which helps make them accurate. “Rendering the terrain was actually the hardest part,” Luo said. “It’s 25 centimeters per pixel, so very accurate. If you run over a mound in the game, then there’s a real mound in that exact same spot on Mars.”

The Unity tools themselves don’t cost much to acquire. The basic version is free. The licensing model NASA uses has a bit more graphical kick and allows apps to be deployed to smart phones in addition to all the other supported platforms. That version costs $7,500 and allows the agency to author its games once, and deploy them anywhere.

The Xbox frontier

The games on the NASA website are impressive, and some of them, especially the one where you configure and drive your own rover, are fairly technical. But they are for the most part aimed at kids and younger players. To capture a slightly older demographic, Luo wanted to go where no federal agency had gone before: the Xbox 360. They worked with Microsoft to create the Mars Rover Game, which was distributed for free on the Xbox Live Network, the game service that everyone with an Xbox 360 can access. 

The Mars Rover Game is more of an arcade title. Its purpose is to get people excited about space travel more than teach them how it really is out there. As such, there are lots of traditional game elements, such as hitting a series of boxes at just the right time to trigger the ship’s thrusters to begin braking. It even uses the Xbox 360’s Kinect device, which is a special camera for the console that detects and captures player movement.

Luo said that using the Kinect was a natural fit for his team, since they were looking at it as a possible controller for moving around real robots in space. In fact, he said, his team does that type of thing all the time. “Gaming companies build these cheap tools and we examine them to see if they can be used to control robots,” he said. “Now we look at them in two ways. First to see if they can be used for exploration and then if they would be a good fit for our outreach programs,” as the Kinect was with the Mars Rover Game.

Luo’s team is studying the possibility of using the new Leap Motion Controller to direct the movements of the gigantic All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) robot that one day may be tasked with exploring asteroids in our solar system. In fact, he and other NASA scientists demonstrated Leap control of the six-legged ATHLETE at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. With the controller, scientists can use their fingers, spider-like, as legs of the robot. As they move their fingers, the legs on the ATHLETE also move in tandem.

The Mars Rover Game on Xbox Live and the suite of titles on the Mars Website have been exceedingly popular according to Luo. When asked if NASA and JPL plan to do more with gaming and gamification, Luo was enthusiastic.

“I certainly hope so,” he said. “When you look at what we put into it in terms of money and time compared with how many people played the games and the level of attention they brought, they were huge successes.”


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