NASA and Epic Games will collaborate to present the “challenge” of creating virtual reality experiences on Mars for research and testing purposes.
The rapid growth of virtual reality technology in the gaming industry has opened up a number of significant opportunities in other industries. Scientific research and training are one such example, and even NASA acknowledges that potential. In a recent announcement, NASA said it was working with Epic Games to present a “challenge” to game developers. The challenge was to create Mars-based virtual reality assets and experiences that could help prepare for an ultimate trip to the red planet.
The challenge is presented through the HeroX platform, a platform that allows organizations to gather solutions from the community for unique projects. The challenge from NASA is aimed at game developers, which is why they partnered with Epic Games. Developers will use Unreal Engine 5 to create their Mars assets and experiences, which will eventually be used in NASA’s Mars XR Operations Support Systems environment.
Of course, developers won’t need to develop an entire Mars simulation from scratch. The MarsXR environment already has a substantial amount of content available for developers to use. MarsXR includes a “world” with over 400 km^2 of Martian terrain, day/night cycles, realistic weather conditions, simulated Martian gravity, as well as assets, including space suits and ships. Developers can add new content or use what’s available to create their own custom experiences.
NASA is looking at five different styles of experiences, so developers can choose the style that works best for them. The five “categories” that NASA will evaluate include “Camp Setting,” “Scientific Research,” “Maintenance,” “Exploration,” and “Blow Our Minds.” “Blow Our Minds” means “explode our minds” is probably for developers who can create a groundbreaking experience. There will be 20 individual prizes, 4 in each category and a total prize pool of $70,000. The overall winner for each category will receive $6,000. Challenge participants will have 80 days to implement the plans.
The challenge attracted a large amount of attention with more than 150 teams participating, most of which were teams of 1-2 members. It should come as no surprise to see a larger number of people join in the next few months. The teams all include participants from all over the world, including Kenya, Iran, Ukraine, Korea, Taiwan and more. Creating a Mars simulation experience is clearly an exciting opportunity for game developers.
There is certainly some fair criticism to be made regarding the NASA award because of the more than 150 teams that have contributed their free time to this project, only 20 will have won any money. NASA must by all means have enough money to hire development teams to create the experiences NASA is looking for. That doesn’t make the project any less interesting or the hard work of these development teams any less valuable. Hopefully all the Mars projects will be featured when the NASA challenge is complete.
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