Earlier today, the astronauts aboard the International Space Station received a welcome delivery from Earth: over 7,700 pounds of supplies, including food, science experiments, and most unusual of all, several Microsoft HoloLens headsets. Just what will the astronauts be using these crazy new headsets for?
Popular Science got the opportunity to ask this very question in a live interview earlier today with NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kornienko (video above).
Both men are spending over a year aboard the station as part of a grand experiment to find out how long missions in space affect the human body. And having already spent 257 days of their year-long mission inside the relatively cramped confines up in orbit, they're probably more eager than most to try something totally new.
But beyond that, it's easy to see how Microsoft's HoloLens could be quite useful aboard the station: the experimental headset uses a type of technology known as augmented reality (or "AR" for short), which lets you see computer graphics and other digital information layered over the real world around you (unlike virtual reality, which blocks the real world and immerses you totally in a virtual one).
In the few previous demos of the HoloLens, Microsoft has shown off gamers battling hordes of virtual robots that appear to break through the walls of your living room, as well as more mundane but potentially constructive purposes like letting medical students see inside models of the human body, or letting product designers mock-up 3D designs out of thin-air.
So what will the station astronauts be doing with the HoloLens? Popular Science executive editor Jennifer Bogo asked Scott Kelly, and he responded by pointing out two possible working situations: going through a list of procedures, and interacting with space station equipment. As Kelly said:
You know I actually got the opportunity to try that out before I launched, and it seems like there are certain capabilities that would be good for us onboard the space station. One would be, you know right now we look at the computer or an iPad to look at procedures. And if you could have a procedure right in your field-of-view, something that was command-able with your voice, you know where you could scroll through the different steps, that would be helpful. It also has this capability where somebody on the ground perhaps could be looking basically at what you’re looking at, and be able to write in your field of view. So let’s say we’re working on a piece of hardware, and we’re not that familiar with it, but we have an expert on the ground, you know that person could basically see what we’re seeing and make annotations, point to things, and kind of lead us through a particular activity. You know that’s one of the many capabilities of that, or similar hardware, that we’re excited about.
The HoloLens won't be available outside of Microsoft and the space station until early 2016, and even then, the first copies will go only to registered software developers for the eye-popping price of $3,000 for each headset. So for now, we'll all have to enjoy its capabilities through the eyes of the astronauts!