NASA Microsoft preview era of holographic computing

NASA, Microsoft preview the era of holographic computing

NASA and Microsoft broke new ground in scientific computing this week in demonstrating software that will give scientists a simulated experience of working together in real time and in three dimensions from the surface of Mars.

Using software called Onsight developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and HoloLens, the just-announced wearable, holographic goggles from Microsoft, scientists will be able take images from the Curiosity rover and view them as 3D holograms of the surface of Mars.

The technology “gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory. “It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover.”

Microsoft’s HoloLens technology, which the company said would be a part of the its upcoming Windows 10 operating system, is expected to be unveiled later this year and is now being shown in prototype mode.

A demo of the Onsight application by GigaOm’s Kif Leswing provided a “very detailed surface replication of Mars, down to the individual rock.”  Clicking on rocks with an “air tap” gesture enabled the user to explore more of the Mars environment, Leswing said.

According to GigaOm, the device was running several virtual applications, including HoloStudio, a 3D developer application, the Onsight software developed with NASA and a version of Skype.

NASA says the tool will also provide access to the Mars surface and enable engineers to interact with surface features in a more natural way.

The JPL team developing OnSight specializes in systems to control robots and spacecraft. The new holographic software will help them understand the workspace of robotic spacecraft , which can challenging with their traditional tools, according to JPL.

"Previously, our Mars explorers have been stuck on one side of a computer screen. This tool gives them the ability to explore the rover's surroundings much as an Earth geologist would do field work here on our planet," said Jeff Norris, JPL’s OnSight project manager.

JPL said the OnSight-HoloLens technology will also be useful for simpler direction of rover operations, which scientists could do by looking at a target and gesturing at different menu commands.

Microsoft said the HoloLens software will support its Windows 10 rollout as “new generation of Windows” that represents “an era of more personal computing.”

At a meeting announcing features of Windows 10, CEO Satya Nadella described the new operating sytem  as  “the world's first holographic computing platform, complete with a set of APIs that enable developers to create holographic experiences in the real world,” said  Nadella.

“With Windows 10, holograms are Windows universal apps, making it possible to place three-dimensional holograms in the world around you to communicate, create and explore in a manner that is far more personal and human," he added.

Analysts who were briefed on the technology were bullish on the development.

"If successful, HoloLens will ultimately expand the way people interact with machines, just as the mouse-based interface did in the 1990s and touch interfaces did after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007," said Forrester analyst James McQuivey, in a statement.

JPL plans to begin testing OnSight in Curiosity mission operations later this year. Future applications may include Mars 2020 rover mission operations and other applications in support of NASA's journey to Mars.

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