US aerospace giant Boeing will use Varjo’s VR-2 advanced mixed reality headset to train astronauts for its Starliner spacecraft.
NASA has used virtual reality for training for decades, but the low resolution limited the range of tasks that could be simulated. Boeing says this is the first end-to-end VR astronaut training system.
Starliner, currently in the uncrewed testing phase, is Boeing’s upcoming reusable crew capsule. It will be used for the same NASA program as SpaceX’s Dragon 2, which in late May launched astronauts for the first time. Essentially, the task once handled by the Space Shuttle (ferrying crew to the International Space Station) will now be taken by these two private companies.
Varjo is a Finnish company which sells ultra high end VR headsets, some with powerful mixed reality capabilities. The unique “bionic” display system projects a smaller but higher resolution image in the center of the lenses. Within this central area, Varjo claims “human eye” resolution.
That comes at a cost though- the VR-2 is priced at $4995. Companies like Facebook and Sony design hardware for a consumer market, but Varjo doesn’t have this restriction.
The astronaut training system can be used for an entire mission, from pre-launch to docking with the international space station, and the full journey back to earth.
The system’s development was lead by Boeing’s Connie Miller. Engineers in Australia recreated the Starliner in Unreal Engine, and this was then integrated in the Houston training center. Miller saw Varjo’s headsets as a breakthrough thanks to the resolution, which allows even the smallest controls to be read clearly.
Using VR also has the advantage of allowing training to continue in pre-launch quarantine, which was not possible with traditional systems.
Starliner includes one seat for potential space tourism. Boeing hasn’t announced concrete plans to commercialise this, but the Varjo based training system has the potential to make training tourists much easier than before.
Boeing hopes the VR system can be brought aboard Starliner itself when it launches in 2021, allowing for in-orbit training of advanced scenarios. In 2017 an Oculus Rift was sent to the International Space Station, but Varjo’s resolution enables completely new use cases.