Space Invaders: NASA's call to game developers

Space Invaders: NASA's call to game developers
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

April 15th 2013 at 11:49AM

Develop investigates how game developers can reach for the stars with the US space agency

[This feature was published in the April edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

The vast American agency NASA has detailed a plan to work with numerous games developers and technology creators to assist in its exploration of space.

Representatives of NASA took to the stage at the recent GDC to detail their employer’s hopes for collaboration with games makers, attracting a standing ovation from a crowd apparently besotted by the idea of contributing to mankind’s understanding of the universe’s furthest reaches.

And while NASA understands the power of games as a medium for public engagement – the process whereby games are used to enthuse consumers around a particular topic – now it is looking to use the technology and design theory behind games to control robots in space and on the surface of planets. NASA is also open to hiring staff from games studios the world over.

Develop caught up with NASA at GDC, and spoke with a pair of its experts from the body’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the body behind much of the work constructing, landing and controlling the Curiosity robot, currently found on the surface of Mars.

The JPL’s foremost concern is the design, construction and operation of ‘robotic planetary spacecraft’, though it does much other work within NASA’s remit.

JOINING THE JET SET

“There are two major roles for games in space exploration,” explained Jeff Norris, manager of the Planning and Execution Systems Section at the JPL, talking to Develop.

“One is as a medium for communication and sharing our missions. Part of NASA’s core mission is to share our exploration with the world. Games have turned out to be a very important medium for doing that. But then, of course, the second application is using the gaming technologies themselves to control robots in space exploration.”

Already, Norris is at the point where it gets interesting for those in the games industry. NASA really is intent on adopting games tech – proprietary or middleware – for use in its exploration of space, in part due to its increased use of remotely controlled robots and vehicles.

But why, and how, is technology designed for living room entertainment at all relevant to those sending hardware to the stars?

“When we look at gaming technologies we see the results of a lot of careful thought and investment in usability,” offered Norris.

“Leveraging that investment in usability is a great opportunity for us because we can take those investments and apply them in a domain where, while it is not where they are intended for, they are quite applicable.”

Games technology certainly scores well when it comes to usability; the volume of games made – and people making them – means the tech must now be relatively accessible. But what about what each technology does?

It’s not immediately apparent why something for animating game characters or lighting levels has a use beyond the confines of Earth’s gravity.

REMOTE CONTROL

But consider the task that faces a game’s designer, and the role the technology they use serves. Typically they must let the player remotely control a complex character or machine remotely, with UI and computer controls as a means for interaction.

“If you squint at that just right and get far enough away from it and look at it just right it’s not actually that different from the task that we face when we’re controlling a robot on another planet,” said Norris.

“Again, there’s a complicated machine in a distant environment. It’s true that the end results
are potentially more profound and potentially more serious when you’re dealing with an expensive robot than with a game, which, we agree, is entertainment, and therefore arguably a more trivial endeavor. But it remains that the task and the challenge that the operator is facing has something in common.”

And NASA isn’t alone in recognising the opportunity. Alexandre Pechev is CEO of inverse kinematics middleware outfit IKinema, which started out life at the Surrey Space Institute.

There in Surrey, where satellites are constructed 100 yards away from the offices of UK games developer Lionhead, Pechev created a tool. It was conceived to assist satellites in their targeting of the Earth, but quickly reworked by Pechev to serve the games industry for inverse kinematics. As such, he perfectly understands the technological overlap.

“There is a fair amount of simulation that needs to be done in any space project,” stated Pechev.

“From AI to physics and kinematics, [it’s applicable], for example, for rovers on Mars, humanoids on Mars, construction of probes, robots on space probes, robots on the surfaces of planets and so on. One has to also consider the difference in gravity, and all this needs to be embedded into the simulation phase of the project.

“AI has been extensively developed in the gaming industry and all this can only benefit the space sector.”

Pechev also points out that the best game engines also provide an excellent environment for running space simulations.

GROUND CONTROL

For NASA, however, it isn’t just a matter of embracing technology used for making games. The way players themselves interface with games is of equal interest to those designing systems for robot control, and, as Norris explains, that logic stems from an admiration of the way video games communicate with their players.

“There’s an art to games’ interaction systems, and it’s beyond technology,” offers Norris. “It’s that art of design and interaction, and how to teach somebody to do
something quickly. We can leverage that too for our work.”

“The other point is that these are devices that consumers are quite comfortable with, so they are already trained up to use controllers such as a PlayStation or Xbox controller,” added Victor Luo, task lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Games controllers and related peripherals certainly appear to fascinate NASA.

In fact, Norris and Luo’s use of a Leap Motion UI device on stage at GDC to control a huge ‘ATHLETE’ robot hundreds of miles away in Pasadena proved the most talked about part of their session. And it demonstrated a point more important than just wowing the assembled crowd.

“We naturally want to make our robotics systems as approachable and easy to control by our engineers as we can, because we want them to be as effective as they can while exploring, so using natural interfaces and things like Kinect or Leap Motion we just feel improves the efficiency and effectiveness of our operators,” said Norris. “That’s the opportunity we see with such controllers.”

ONE SIMILAR STEP

It’s clear, then, that NASA’s interest in video games is motivated by technology, be it hardware or software, but there is another reason games development and space exploration make ideal partners, and it’s to do with people.

Culturally, games makers and space scientists share many mutual interests, and that includes those beyond being able to quote episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. According to Norris, both groups share a mindset that makes them ideal working partners.

“Exploration has always been an imaginative exercise. It quite often starts with the words: I wonder,” speculated Norris.

“I wonder what’s beyond that cliff. I wonder what’s across that river. That sort of wonder aspect is what gives birth to the fictional explored worlds that drive games as well as space exploration. I think there’s something in the psyche that brings these things together.

“I don’t think it’s coincidental. I think that they are at their core aspirationally-motivated things; one sees you go to a place you’ve never been before physically, while the other lets you experience something you’ve never been to before virtually.”

And more than that, said Norris, many games developers and NASA’s staff found their career inspiration in a similar space, that being the living room. As NASA landed a human on the moon as part of the Apollo mission, 600 million watched on TV.

Numerous NASA staff point to that day as the moment they decided on their career. A decade later, and consoles were starting to make their way into the same room, inspiring a new generation to consider games making – and even space exploration – as a career.

“The television is an entertainment medium,” said Norris, who thinks games themselves might unlock a new generation’s interest in the space sector as a career.

“The television was invented to entertain, and wasn’t created to explore,” he continued. “There’s a great example of how an entertainment medium, without doubt, inspired and changed lives and created vocational interest within the people who were watching those broadcasts. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that games could play a similar role today.”

There’s a parallel line of thought to the idea that games can serve as a medium to explore our understanding of the world around us. Braid creator Jonathan Blow and various other academically-minded games makers have mused on the topic before, and it’s one NASA readily subscribes to.

“Games can act fundamentally as an experimental tool,” agrees Norris.

“Why do we explore? We’re accomplishing science and asking really hard questions. We asking things like ‘how will this substance behave in zero gravity?’ Those are the questions scientists on the International Space Station are asking. We’re asking questions about the environment of Mars.

“Games, on the other hand, free of the fetters of reality, experiment and ask questions. So Braid asked ‘what if you can roll back time?’ ‘What if you can slow time?’ So many games start with that ‘what if?’”

WATCH THIS SPACE

If you’re tempted by working with NASA, either as partner or employee, the agency has a clear message for you; don’t let their size, status or line of work intimidate you.

“I want to emphasise to your readers that we’re constantly looking for new partnerships and collaborations, because it’s great to discover the devices and technologies that are coming out of this industry and find new ways to apply them,” Norris told Develop.

“Without exception every time we’ve done that we’ve found the community to be so supportive of us doing that, and I think every time we’ve done it previously everyone has found it to be rewarding.”

NASA by nature has to remain modest with details about the games business partners it has worked with so far, but can reveal it already has a relationship with Microsoft, and is presently in talks with the Oculus Rift team, as well as hardware manufactures such as Leap Motion and zScreen.

And next, NASA and the JPL team wants to talk with you.

www.jpl.nasa.gov