Interview: NASA on space exploration and games

Interview: NASA on space exploration and games
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

April 16th 2013 at 10:00AM

Develop catches up with staff from NASA to talk games and space exploration

For this month’s cover feature on NASA, we caught up with Jeff Norris, manager of planning and execution systems section and Victor Luo task lead of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to talk about space exploration and how game developers can assist the US space agency in their mission to explore the heavens.

Judging by your talk at GDC, it would seem that NASA’s interest in the game industry is about more than public engagement with science. Is that the case?
Jeff Norris:
Yes. There are two major roles for games in space exploration. One, as you mention, 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.

Sticking briefly with public engagement, why does it matter to NASA that people connect to your work through games?
Victor Luo:
I think it’s two-fold. One is for people to understand and experience the current missions that we’re working on, and share the data we get back from the missions. The other is to share with the public the fact that we’re doing so much stuff, and to let them know that they are getting their money’s worth, and that we’re not just sitting there and that NASA’s not doing anything.

Norris: And gaming as a medium is exciting to us because of the audience it reaches and the way it reaches that audience. The audience it reaches, including that huge percentage of teenagers, fits with NASA’s goal to inspire young people to engage in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – those STEM subjects – and we want to find ways to speak to that audience. But also, games allow a level of engagement and participation which goes beyond reading a book or watching a movie – though of course both of those are also good ways to reach people – but games let people interact with these environments and with these robotic systems, which is another reason it is an important medium for NASA.

But what is really fascinating is NASA’s interest in embracing the technology used to make games. What does games technology offer NASA?
Norris:
That’s a big question. When we look at gaming technologies we see the results of a lot of careful thought and investment in usability. 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.

It might see to the layman rather unusual that technologies to create living room entertainment are suitable to those exploring space. What about game tech makes it a good fit for space exploration and space robotics?
Norris:
Well, consider the task that a game player faces. There is a complex machine or character that is being controlled in a fictional but detailed distant environment. 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.

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 arguably a more trivial endeavour. But it remains that the task and the challenge that the operator is facing has something in common.

So, that there would be then similarities in the technologies and the approaches seems expected and reasonable. And what we’re trying to do is, certainly discover where there is already overlap, but then explore and exploit additional overlap in those techniques.

Luo: And we want to reduce the barrier to entry and reduce the learning curve for operators to control their robots.

So, while space exploration is a complicated business, there’s a logic to making interactions with space exploration robots as simple as possible, as with games?

Norris: Of course. And it’s even reasonable to make them fun, by the way. There are documented benefits of usability improving performance, meaning that a person who enjoys the interface that they are using to do anything – even managing stock trades or something like that – will se their performance improve. People enjoy using usable interfaces and enjoyment can lead to better performance. So, while it’s not our primary goal to make our NASA interfaces fun to use, that’s not a bad thing to have happen, hey, people want to enjoy their work.

And in the games industry interaction that is fun is typically our primary goal. That must offer NASA something distinct.
Norris:
Yes. And there’s an art there, beyond technology. It’s that art of design and interaction, and how to teach somebody to do something quickly. We can leverage that too.

Luo: The other point is that these are devices that consumers are quite comfortable with, so they are already trained up to use a controller, such as a PlayStation or Xbox controller.

You mentioned controllers several times during your talk at GDC. So NASA are interested in embracing game controllers and the theory and design of games controllers for NASA staff to use in the control of robots in space?
Norris:
Of course. 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. That’s the opportunity we see there.

With all this overlap, is NASA is interested in recruiting from the game development and technology sector?
Luo:
Yes, and it is because we have these core disciplines that overlap, but secondly it’s because there’s this transition from game life to work life, so if a kid grows up using the tools that they’re going to be using at work, they’re going to be much more effective. So we want to connect with them through technology as soon as possible. So when you’re talking about both game designers and gamers, it links to our work quite directly.

Norris: And, yes, we’re finding great opportunities in our workforce development from the game development industry.

What about the cultural similarities our industries share? The history of games and space exploration share a similar timeline, with significant firsts like Space War and Yuri Gagarin’s bold first manned space flight debuting the same year. Is that just a coincidence, or is there a cultural mirroring which is part of why games mean something to space exploration?
Luo:
I think there’s definitely something to say about the geek culture and gamer culture and that of space enthusiasts. If you look at the number of games still made today, including so many indie games on Kickstarter, it’s clear that gamers and space enthusiasts are often the same group.

Norris: Exploration has always been an imaginative exercise. It quite often starts with the words ‘I wonder’. ‘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 drives games as well. 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.

Academically minded observers have definitely suggested games as a form of travelling for the psyche before, which seems to parallel with what you’re saying.
Norris:
Certainly. And there’s some very profound philosophical questions to be asked there about the essence of human experience and what constitutes presence. If I talk to somebody on the phone am I not talking to them because they are far away? I think most people would agree I’m talking to that person. If I’m controlling a robot on the other side of the country am I exploring that part of the country, some people might be willing to say yes. There’s a weird little discontinuity there somewhere where at a point people will say ‘no, no, no; you’re not actually there because you’re exploring it virtually. I think it’s really fun to find that point of inflection and ask why. ‘Why here’?

[Where is the human when a robot is in space, or when they are playing a game]

Luo: And I think that line is getting more grey, a technology improves and as gamers and people in general are more open to the idea of remote exploration.

Taking us back to public engagement, games as a form of remote exploration and experience of space must surely serve to help inspire more people to seek work in space, and games.
Norris:
The example I would give is that a lot of people who work at NASA trace their inspiration moment back to sitting in a living room and watching Apollo on television. The television is an entertainment medium. It was invented to entertain, and wasn’t created to explore. 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.

Luo: Entertainment has evolved since the television, and it’s multifaceted now. We see gaming as one big part of that.

What about game design as a way to explore the real universe in a similar way we use physics and maths – something designer Jonathan Blow has talked about. Is that something you recognise?
Norris:
I think you’re hitting it on the head there. Games can act fundamentally as an experimental tool. 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?’.

Are you able to detail any case studies of where you are already working with games technology companies or games developers?
Norris:
I think at a high level we can say that we’re continuing working with Microsoft and exploring new possibilities there. We have collaborations with several hardware manufacturers, so we’re using the zSpace displays and Leap Motion controllers.

Norris: And 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. 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.

That will surely come as a compliment to many in the business of games. Games haven’t always had a great reputation, so an organisation like NASA and an act like space exploration seeing positives and opportunities in games will likely be very popular.
Luo:
Certainly the NASA brand helps. It’s seen as a very positive thing, I hope.

Norris: You have to remember that lots of us at NASA are personally gamers. It’s great to here our interest might be a compliment to game makers, but we are also complimented by the fact so many in games are interested in what we do. We really enjoy meeting the people that have made the games we’ve enjoyed as individuals.

And you talked on stage at GDC about NASA’s struggle to engage with games sooner. To a layman, it might seem inconceivable that you could land Curiosity on another planet, and find games a difficult business to penetrate.
Norris:
I don’t see that is inconsistent at all, because, yes, while flying and landing and controlling things on Mars is something we are immersed in, gaming and consoles and those worlds are as alien as us as space flight is to you. That’s a beautiful thing though. Thank goodness this did not require us to become gaming experts, because we couldn’t fit that in our lifetime. We’ve already invested our career development in one area. If that was the only way we could accomplish this we could have nothing to show for our efforts. That’s what good collaborations are born of. We’ve found a common interest we can work together on.

And what about in the past outside of games? Has collaboration with other industries always been part of what NASA does?
Luo:
Yes. Right now, for example, there’s been a lot of collaboration with the private industries: having them take our previously developed technologies and making them cheaper has let us get out of that business and work on newer technologies and focus on places we haven’t been yet.

Norris: And exploration historically has always been a massively collaborative process, just because these expeditions take on such grand dimensions. The notion of accomplishing them within a single organisation is comical. If you look at the Apollo missions it involved so many private companies. It took a civilisation of people working together to accomplish what they did. So, yes, collaboration with other industries is in NASA’s blood as it’s impossible to do what we do without them.

Is NASA only interested in partnering with the game business’ giants, or should studio of every size be open to working with you? Some studios may feel a little meek about what they can offer an organisation like NASA.
Luo:
I think what is pleasantly surprising for them is that when we work with these partners initially they find out just how interested in working with them we are. When we start these relationships it becomes clear to both the importance of having such collaborations, and leveraging games development tools and using them, for example, to drive a huge robot, is something both sides gain from, so people should feel worried about approaching us.

Norris: We benefit from those collaborations, certainly. Being reasonable, is it possible every one of Develop’s readers would find some way of collaborating with NASA? Probably not. But we’re having great conversations with, for example, independent games developers who are trying to make messages of space exploration just a part of what they’re building. There’s developers like those taking real data and stylising that data into something beautiful with a kernel of authenticity behind it all. I think that’s a really good example of just one sole developer running his own little independent games company is making a connection with NASA. We helped him with resources to find more data. And NASA loves to give data away. We’re happy to collaborate.

Luo: I think that one of the main messages of our GDC talk was that we have been and will continue to be inspired by the gaming industry, and hopefully visa versa.

Famously, early sci-fi literature has influenced real-world science, with words like ‘astronaut’ and ‘robot’ starting out in works of fiction. Could the fiction of video games worlds have the same influence of NASA’s priority work?
Norris:
I’m smiling now because it’s so obviously the case to me. Science fiction and the movie industry are fonts of inspiration for everyone in our culture, including those who work in space exploration. There’s been a long history of it.

Luo: A story we often tell is that the Mars rovers that we sent in 2004 were modeled to feel more like humans and take a human shape. Then Pixar came to us and wanted to model their Wall-E robots after those rovers. It was a real case of science imitating life and then art imitating science, and shows how they all influence one another.

Norris: I see science fiction as the first step of asking those ‘what if questions’. They  start with ‘what if, with the most unrestricted medium possible, we could imagine this wonderful concept’. Next they become ‘what ifs’ through diagrams, and then there’s a ‘what if’ through a prototype, and then the next ‘what if’ is building a spaceship. To me there’s no reason games can’t be a part of that.

Images: NASA