While its Starliner may have been beaten to the ISS, Boeing has begun to prepare astronauts for the CST-100 experience with the aid of some photorealistic VR.
The use of VR in astronaut training has a long history – NASA has been a proponent of the tech for some time. However, for its Starliner capsule, Boeing has tapped relative newcomers Helsinki-based Varjo to make things a little more realistic with 60 pixel per degree (PPD) visuals.
That 60 PPD figure is considerably more impressive than HP's Reverb, for example, and brings the resolution of the imagery to that of the human eye. It makes the whole VR experience far more immersive than many current solutions, which can be a little murky, or give the feeling of peering through a screen-door as users are forced to lean forward to read virtual displays.
There is, however, a catch, as Niko Eiden, CEO and co-founder of Varjo, explained to us. "We actually have four displays," he said, "two displays per eye. The context display, which provides the full field of view, which is very similar to the existing VR headset displays you see today."
"But then we have something we call focus display, which is a very high-resolution display and smaller in size. And we overlay these two display images on top of each other so that in the centre area you get this powerful sharp view."
The effect is that the VR-2 headset being used by Boeing has a hugely high-resolution 30˚ horizontal field in front of the eye, and a more traditional resolution around it, much like how the human eye focuses.
However, the total field of view is only 87˚ and that focus display does not yet move with the rolling of an eyeball, although eye-tracking to spot what a user is looking at is available.
The Boeing team has modelled the relevant parts of the Starliner using the Unreal engine and reckon that pretty much every part of the mission from pre-launch, through docking and eventually landing can be recreated without the need for simulators at every step or fly crew members around the country in order to undertake training.
A mean-spirited person might suggest that if only the company had adopted the same end-to-end approach elsewhere in the design of the Starliner, the CST-100 might not have gained the nickname of The Calamity Capsule.
The VR-2 is a pricey beast, coming in at €4,995 for a headset (with another €795 on top for "software and support services), but does not feature hand-tracking. Another thousand Euros gets you the VR-2 Pro with Ultraleap handtracking.
Mixed reality fans can opt for the eyewateringly expensive XR-1 (twelve thousand of your finest Euros), which dispenses with the ghostly HoloLens-style effect for something that combines a live feed of visuals with VR in the displays of the headset itself.
An example would be a simulator where displays generated within the headset are masked over something that feels like a physical control panel. "You can see a training device for example, which might have the switches and have a real control stick so that you get the tactile feeling of whatever you're training for as well," explained Eiden.
Sticking with the crisp visuals of the VR-2, Boeing is going down the tried and tested route of Vive controllers, as Connie Miller, a software engineer for the company explained.
"We are using the Valve Index controllers," she said, adding that every phase of flight and switch throw would be simulated as if in a physical simulator. "It also does this while integrated with the training systems," she said, "so that astronauts using the headset VR system are still practising as part of the team with their crewmates and the flight controllers."
"We do plan to investigate hand-tracking or haptic gloves in the future."
Naturally, you need a fairly beefy bit of kit to run the headset: Varjo recommends a Core i7-8700 and something along the lines of an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 (no AMD GPU shenanigans here.)
Shipping one to an astronaut with which to train remotely or in quarantine is the plan (Starliner Commander Chris Ferguson is due to take delivery of one in the coming weeks) and there are mutterings that a unit could find its way to the ISS before long to keep astronauts up to speed on systems and procedures during long duration missions.
"I'd be super-stoked to have our headset in space, obviously!" laughed Eiden, while Miller told us it was under consideration: "It would be simplified since astronauts would not need to practice launch or docking," she said, before pointing out "there are technical hurdles to overcome since headsets are designed to work in gravity."
As for today's iteration, Miller told us: "It has just completed evaluation and development and will be set up for use in Florida in the coming weeks."
Hopefully the actual Starliner itself might follow suit before long. ®