NASA Interns Design Interactive Virtual Reality Prototype

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Sara Caudill, an intern at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif., is the lead designer of Greater Heights flight simulation project. Caudill, who is in her third year of study for a master’s degree in design at The Ohio State University, is specializing in digital animation and interactive media studies. (Courtesy photograph)
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People will soon be able to “fly” a legendary aircraft Neil Armstrong once piloted at NASA’s Armstrong Fight Research Center at Edwards, Calif., thanks to a team of NASA interns.

The team is designing an interactive virtual reality experience that will look and feel like the hypersonic X-15 rocket plane.

The project, called Greater Heights, is a part of NASA Armstrong’s 75th Anniversary. It is an intern-led narrative virtual reality flight simulation experience that is anticipated for release this fall.

Sara Caudill, a NASA Armstrong intern, is the lead designer of Greater Heights. Caudill, who is in her third year of study for a master’s degree in design at The Ohio State University, is specializing in digital animation and interactive media studies.

She began designing the project blueprint and crafting a storyline about NASA’s X-15 aircraft and began the production of Greater Heights during her first internship in the summer of 2020.

NASA Armstrong interns Neil Malik and Casey Merritt are also part of the Greater Heights team. Malik, a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut, studying computer science, leads the simulation portion of the project, while Merritt, a student at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, studying computer science, leads scene management. In addition to the Greater Heights team, Stephen Clarke, a graduate student at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, majoring in computer science, is volunteering time on this project and contributes to the development, design, and production portion of the project. Clarke is an intern at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, Calif.

The Greater Heights experience
The first play mode of the virtual reality experience is Story Mode, which details former astronaut Neil Armstrong’s experiences testing the X-15 aircraft in 1962. Users will have the opportunity to experience flying the X-15 model using the virtual reality experience. The second play mode is called Free Flight and it is designed to have users fly different types of aircraft such as the X-59 and the X-57.

Users will download the experience by a link on a NASA website and be able to experience the virtual reality prototype with either a virtual reality headset or a mouse and keyboard.

“We want someone to put on the headset and walk in the shoes of Neil Armstrong, fly the X-15 like Neil Armstrong, and come out inspired to pursue a career within the aeronautics and space industry,” Merritt said.

Caudill designed the program to reach as broad an audience as possible.

“We want this [virtual reality] experience available for people of all levels of expertise,” she said. “That’s really been a focal point for our user experience design.”
The virtual reality prototype can inspire students.

“We’ve talked about how we want to inspire the next generation of NASA in ways similar to the way we ourselves were inspired,” Caudill explained. “The goal is to make the experience visually striking and to make a compelling narrative. 

The Greater Heights project manager Aamod Samuel, an Armstrong lead electronics engineer, said he hopes the project engages people and informs them about NASA’s work.

Virtual reality in the Greater Heights project contributes to NASA’s mission by inspiring others and developing technologies for testing future aircraft.

Team receives funding award
Although, the project is still under production, the Greater Heights team received an award for its innovative project and progress. During the fall of 2020, the team was awarded the 2020 Center Innovation Fund Award for their virtual reality project.

“Honestly, I can’t imagine trying to do this project without the funds that we received from the CIF Award!” said Caudill. “It has been instrumental in getting this project off the ground.”  

For students interested in pursuing virtual reality as a career, Neil Malik, who leads the simulation portion of the project, has advice for aspiring students.

“The best thing you can do is to start messing around with basic game development,” he said. “There are lots of available game engines that are free to use and tons of online resources for how to get started programming beginner projects. Virtual reality (VR) is really just an extension of regular game development, so if you’re familiar with that, the concepts behind VR will kind of come naturally. It’s much easier to get into than people may think, but it will likely seem overwhelming if they just try jumping straight into VR with no prior development experience.”

Clarke encourages students who are interested in virtual reality to start creating.

 “Start making your own projects! Clarke encouraged. “Modern VR is still in its infancy, but there are thousands of resources online to help get started on a project,” he said. “There is nothing quite like the feeling of watching something you create come to life inside a headset.”

To learn more about applying for a NASA internship, visit intern.nasa.gov. The fall 2021 application deadline is July 9.

To learn about virtual reality educational resources available for educators, visit: jpl.nasa.gov/edu.
 
 
 

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