NASA Brought Mars to Earth at This Year’s CES

Agency used AR and VR to show what it's doing on the red planet

The agency expanded its presence at the trade show in 2018.
Getty Images

The Consumer Electronics Show is meant to display the future of humanity. There’s a certain optimism in looking at how technology advances society; how we can take an ordinary refrigerator and make it “smart.” But for a small band of operators, there’s a bigger mission: getting people to look to the heavens and get excited about the possibilities that technology can turn into a reality.

For a third year in a row, NASA commissioned an expedition to Las Vegas, where it tried to get attendees to step foot on a foreign planet. Using Microsoft’s Hololens head set, visitors could walk around a small area of Mars, surrounded by red-clay sand and dust. They could also walk up to an AR image of a rover, which had been mapped out to appear where a real-life semitruck was actually parked.

“If we can give them the experience, they can almost sympathize with us when it actually happens,” said Kimberly Williams, a public affairs officer with NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Like [someone saying], ‘I did that 10 years ago in a VR booth at CES, so I’ve been to Mars.'”

This isn’t the first time NASA has used VR or AR to brief us land-lovers on what it’s up to. Over the past two years, the space agency and other entities have collaborated on a variety of ambitious projects. In 2016, McCann and FrameStore built a VR bus for kids, and National Geographic built a VR ride that simulated a landing to promote a fictional show about Mars. Last year at South by Southwest, NASA even turned astronaut Buzz Aldrin into a hologram.

The agency also partnered with Google to create a 360-degree interactive tool called “Access Mars,” where users could see what life is like on the red planet. And you don’t even need a head set.

Most of the work NASA showcases at CES and other conferences each year is based on actual data from videos, photos and maps. That not only helps accurately show what’s happening but also helps people feel closer to the action even though they’ll never get a chance to go to space. The space agency also uses VR technology to train its astronauts. From simulating space walks to “manipulating payloads in zero gravity.”

Last week, NASA also featured a non-NASA entity, Made In Space Inc., which 3-D prints objects aboard the International Space Station. NASA also partnered with Nissan in another area of the Las Vegas Convention Center to show off autonomous driving technology that originated with the U.S. government.

From smartphone cameras to ear thermometers to water purifiers, NASA has had a long history of creating technology that has had important practical applications for advancing humanity. (Ok, fine. Camera phones haven’t advanced humanity, but answer this: How many selfies have you taken today?)

“We have a philosophy that anything we create for space we’re certainly happy to share with the community because we’re all taxpayers, and we’re all investing in the space program whether we really know it or not, so we can’t hoard it,” Williams said. “We need to make sure people have access to it and we’re not exclusive, so anyone who wants to viably partner with us can.”

Recommended articles