After months of preparation, a group of computer engineering students recently received positive feedback from extravehicular activity experts for their augmented reality interface system at a showcase for NASA’s Space User Interface for Students challenge in Austin.
Juniors David Woodward, Tim Stern and Juan Ruiz sent in their original proposal to NASA in November when they detailed the workings of an augmented reality interface system with a headset to help guide astronauts through spacewalks. Augmented reality differs from virtual reality in that it overlays digital content over a real-world background.
“Our system overlays these panels, like telemetry notes and mission instructions to help astronauts when they’re like doing spacewalks,” Woodward said. “We called our design ‘The Dome.’ Essentially, it’s this floating sphere with all these panels [and] my computer has screens that can display different information to help astronauts so we have a telemetry one, which shows them their suit, their oxygen levels and navigation.”
“The Dome” allows astronauts to view instructions and navigate spaces in real time during their spacewalks. Currently, astronauts use a microphone to talk to mission control to guide them, but this has a 20-minute delay in space. As a result, it can take a long time for astronauts to receive instructions.
“For all their missions, they have a very complicated instruction set and you have to do this, this and this in a specific order, so [‘The Dome’] really displays a lot of information,” Woodward said. “The cool thing about this system is, it’s tied to your chest, so all these windows follow you around wherever you go. You can be upside down in any kind of weird orientation, but your windows will always be here. It’s kind of like having an assistant holding up clipboards or computer screens or something. They always have that information and anytime, and if they need that, all they have to do is just look over to it.”
The team was told by EVA experts during the testing of their system at NASA that it would increase productivity for the International Space Station and lunar missions.
“They had a fuse go out on the space station, so they had to do a spacewalk to repair that,” Stern said. “Then the guy that was actually testing ours on Thursday was the guy who was the Mission Specialist for that particular piece. It was kind of fun to hear him talk about how it would have actually benefited his team if they were using it. It validated a lot of work, that’s for sure.”
The team faced some challenges leading up to the showcase, like having to completely start over with their design for “The Dome.”
“We only got the headset about a month and a half before the competition just because we had to get funding approved and it had to ship,” Woodward said.
Woodward said that once the team got the headset, they realized the it “was not going to be conducive” and had to scrap the original design.
Additionally, funding was also an issue for the project, as the headset their system calls for costs $2,500, Ruiz said.
“UNT is not known for the engineering school,” Ruiz said. “The engineering department does not have a lot of money compared to like the business school. We had to go knocking on doors.”
Nandika D’Souza, the associate dean for undergraduate studies at the College of Engineering, said she advocated for the team from the beginning and helped raise funds.
“The students were putting in an extraordinary effort and seemed to need an advocate,” D’Souza said. “We support undergraduate students to develop themselves with funds. There were some guidelines that were restrictive so having a supportive new Dean Hanchen Huang, who was willing to support the advocacy for students to get the resources to unleash their success from day one, helped tremendously.”
Despite some difficulties with building and funding the system prior to the competition, the team was still able to impress EVA experts. Though it could be some time before their system and ones like it are actually implemented at the ISS or on lunar missions, Stern said.
“Whenever they want to put a new piece of technology in, they need about five years to validate the technology, and then it’s usually about another five years until that technology becomes readily available,” Stern said.
Before NASA further looks into implementing their design, the team will submit a final report on June 20, bringing their nearly a year-long effort to an end.
“We just feel really proud of what we achieved in literally a month and a half,” Ruiz said. “Especially because we’re presenting to actual professionals and to people who have Ph.D.’s and who have sent stuff to orbit. So for the people that actually train astronauts to tell us, ‘we could use your system to walk them through everything,’ it’s just that those words of encouragement were priceless.”
Featured Image: David Woodward, computer engineering junior, explains the concept him and his teammates came up with for their augmented reality system. The team calls their system ‘The DOME’. Image by: Isabel Anes.