NASA Data 3D Flyovers - Preview of Interactive Mars?
Non-interactive, yet dramatic virtual flyovers of NASA's two Mars rover landing sites have been created, using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's camera, and the principle behind stereoscopic 3D.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO is equipped with the most powerful camera so far, to ever be sent to another planet. Called High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment or HiRISE, the imaging device operates in visible wavelengths, the same as human eyes, but with a telescopic lens that will easily resolve 1-meter (about 3-foot) sized objects on the surface of Mars, from orbit.
Human visual perception of 3D works via stereo vision: Two slightly different angles are used to look at any given scene, separated by the distance the eyes are apart. These two slightly differing angles create enough additional information of shadows, raised surfaces, and colouring versus actual height, to be able to work out the relative distances of parts of a scene - instant heightmap.
The orbiter has done exactly the same. By taking high resolution images of the entire stretch of a landing site on one orbital pass - for as long as the site was in view - then repeating the exact same process again on a second orbit, it has created stereo vision. For every single image HiRISE took, it has a second image, very slightly offset by an angle - the second orbital pass.
HiRISE also makes observations at infrared wavelengths so it can ascertain the mineral composition of the rock. From an altitude varying between 125 to 250 miles above the surface it is capable of identifying rock strata features 4-8 ft across. These new, high-resolution images are integrated into the rest of the data, to show the strata forming gullies, channels, and other landscape features.
Using all this information, NASA's videos hint at the very beginnings of a new field: Planetary exploration by VR.
Planetary Exploration by VR
With the two flyovers that have been created by NASA, one flyover circles round the 800-metre-wide Victoria crater, swooping down past a virtual Opportunity rover and into the crater itself, then skims over the dunes on its floor and climbs up the opposite crater wall.
In the other flyover, it soars across the cratered plains that the Spirit rover spent months trekking across, eventually floating by the rugged Columbia hills, where the rover is currently wandering.
Neither is in any way interactive, but both do suggest the merest hint of another possibility.
Due to the stereoscopic image gathering, the heightmap is accurate - any feature over a foot in size, is accurately rendered in elevation and angle. Craters that are not obvious in ordinary, flat images of these plains stand out clearly in the 3D imagery.
Basically, what has been created is a heightmap of real planetary data. A heightmap which can be expanded across more of the planet's surface over time, and which can be converted into a valid terrain for any VR environment.
One Small Step for this simulation
Once accurate terrain data for a planet or section thereof has been loaded into any VR environment, it can be explored immersively, maybe with the aid of stereoscopy and data gloves for the participants themselves, so "man on Mars" is possible, virtually.
From that point on we have humans kneeling on the surface, peering at formations from odd angles, and examining potential water erosion. If additional data is necessary, send a robot rover, or an orbiter to take more pictures - and update the terrain file.
The result, is a Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn or Pluto, anyone can walk on, and explore, as if they were there.
New Scientist Space