For Australian game studio Opaque Space, you could say life has been imitating art recently.
The studio is behind behind Earthlight, a virtual reality game that is possibly the closest you can get to walking in space without being there, which has gotten plenty of attention from NASA.
Now it’s developed a virtual reality trainer for Boeing’s forthcoming CST-100 Starliner capsule. The spacecraft’s primary function is to transport NASA astronauts and other crew members to and from the International Space Station.
“[It’s an] immensely critical opportunity for us to showcase our work as Australian developers but also to showcase the development work happening in Australia,” Emre Deniz, Opaque Space CEO and director, said.
Helping astronauts learn how to dock with the Space Station
The Starlight VR trainer will supplement the physical Starliner simulator, and is a low-cost training method for astronauts. For Starlight, the aeronautical company decided to look outside its research and technology hub in Brisbane for inspiration.
“We wanted to expand our vision and capabilities,” Leighton Carr, Boeing research and technology engineer, explained.
“So we looked across the industry, looked at who was really pushing the envelope and doing the best in virtual reality in Australia. We found Opaque Space and contacted them.”
The VR trainer will initially help to instruct astronauts on how to dock with the International Space Station in low-earth orbit, as well as re-entry procedures for the spacecraft. VR can also be a useful tool for when astronauts might not be living close enough to a physical simulator.
“Obviously astronauts have to spend a long time on the ISS, six month stints up there, so the ability to do training in virtual reality [makes it] possible to do that on the base station and have them have a refresher course effectively the day before re-entry,” Carr said.
The next phase
Like Earthlight, the trainer uses Unreal Engine 4, which NASA has also used in the form of a mixed reality space station to train astronauts. The next generation of the Starliner VR trainer will aim to increase the accuracy of the simulation, so that it matches the actual capsule itself.
“We’re also going to be working with Opaque to help expand the number of training scenarios we can do, and to add things like better multiplayer support,” Carr said.
For Deniz, the project is “one of many milestones” for the serious games industry locally, and a chance to show that VR can help with training people for extreme environments.
“What it means is we’ll start to see a surge in serious games being a focus of the Australian [gaming] industry, and again it’s a great opportunity to showcase that we’re punching well above our weight,” he said.
“The work Boeing is doing is so rapidly ahead of the curve that it’s one we’re using as an example to discuss how virtual reality, or supplementation of physical training, is essentially the way we’re going with future extreme environment operators, such as astronauts.
“I think this will serve as a good indicator to both Australian and international industries that this is a new paradigm of how we’re going to train people for these environments and it’s great to see there’s an industry that’s taken the lead on this.”
To us mere space nerds, the VR trainer looks like an incredibly fun game to play with.