NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory likes to dip its feet in cutting edge consumer hardware from time to time, as evidenced by its trial use of the Leap Motion to remotely control a Mars rover. Well, you can’t get much more cutting edge than virtual reality, which is why the team was so intrigued by the Oculus Rift when they first saw it at PAX last year. They signed up for a dev kit as soon as they could, cobbled the Rift together with a stereoscopic 360-degree panorama of Mars obtained from Curiosity, strapped on the VR goggles and found themselves magically transported to the Red planet.
According to our interview with Human Interfaces Engineer Victor Luo, they then added terrain imagery captured from satellites so users could actually “walk” on Mars’ rocky surface using an Xbox controller — “with up to 25 centimeters per pixel.” “However, we thought it’d be great if we could literally ‘walk’ on the terrain,” said Luo. With that in mind, they contacted the people behind the Virtuix Omni treadmill. It so happens they were in the area for E3, so they brought the contraption up to JPL headquarters, hooked it up, and sure enough, they were able to “wander around” the surface of Mars with their own two feet. Join us after the break for more on our interview with Luo, plus a video clip of the aforementioned virtual Mars tour.