The rapid growth of virtual reality technology in the gaming industry has opened up a significant number of opportunities in other industries. Scientific research and training is one such example, and even NASA acknowledges that potential.
In an announcement made recently, NASA announced it was partnering with Epic Games to deliver a "challenge" to game developers. The challenge is to create virtual reality assets and experiences based on Mars that can help prepare for an eventual trip to the red planet.
The challenge was issued through the HeroX platform, which allows organizations to crowdsource solutions for unique projects. The challenge from NASA is aimed toward game developers, which is why it partnered with Epic Games. Developers will use Unreal Engine 5 to create their Mars assets and experiences, which will ultimately be used in NASA's Mars XR Operations Support System environment.
Developers won't be left to develop an entire Mars simulation from the ground up, of course. The MarsXR environment already has a significant amount of content available for developers to start with. MarsXR includes a "world" with over 400 km^2 of Mars terrain, day/night cycles, realistic weather conditions, simulated Mars gravity, as well as assets, including spacesuits and rovers. Developers can then add to these assets or use what's available to create their custom experiences.
NASA is seeking five different styles of experiences, so developers can choose which makes the most sense for them. The five "categories" that NASA will be evaluating include "Set Up Camp," "Scientific Research," "Maintenance," "Exploration," and "Blow Our Minds," the latter of which perhaps means some Mars aliens will come into the picture. There will be 20 individual prizes, 4 for each category, and a total prize pool of $7,000. The overall winner for each category will receive $6,000. Those taking up the challenge will have 80 days to enter the challenge.
The challenge has already drawn a healthy amount of interest. Over 150 teams have entered, most of which are teams of 1-2 members. It wouldn't be surprising to see a significant number more join in the next few months. Teams include entrants from across the world, including Kenya, Iran, Ukraine, South Korea, Taiwan, and beyond. Creating a Mars simulation experience is clearly an exciting opportunity.
There's certainly some fair criticism to be made regarding NASA crowdfunding Mars experiences. Of over 150 teams contributing their free time to this project, only 20 will win any money. NASA should, by all means, have enough funding to employ development teams to create the experiences it's looking for. That doesn't make the project any less interesting, or the hard work of these development teams any less valuable, of course. Here's hoping all the Mars projects are properly showcased when NASA's challenge completes.