Monday, June 20, 2016

2016-06-20: Autonomy Incubator Expands into Virtual Reality

"So, imagine I made a racket and a ball. I could play tennis with this," intern Angelica Garcia explained, miming a backhand motion with one of the controllers she held in each hand.

The Autonomy Incubator's (Ai) new HTC Vive™ had just arrived in the mail, and she was running me through the basics of virtual reality as she set it up in her office. Two infrared "lighthouses" perched on camera tripods on opposite sides of the room collect information about the position of the headset and the two handheld controllers, creating an immersive virtual environment for the wearer.

Angelica demonstrates how to use the Vive.
The Vive, its competitor the Oculus Rift™, and other virtual reality systems have mostly gained steam in the video game sector: players can totally immerse themselves in virtual worlds as they hack their way through hordes of zombies or pilot a WWII fighter jet. However, the increasingly powerful options for virtual reality also hold promise in scientific applications. Angelica, a Masters student at the University of Central Florida studying Modeling and Simulation, plans to use virtual reality setups to enable researchers at the Ai to model their algorithms on virtual drones in true-to-life virtual environments.

"Why do that when we have a huge indoor flight range?" I asked.

"Well yeah, we have an indoor flight range here, but we're not just going to fly our UAVs in here all the time," she said. "Ideally, we can use virtual reality to build any terrain we want."

Angelica checks out her virtual environment through the Oculus headset.
Her first step will be modeling the Ai flight range as accurately as possible, using positioning data from the Vicon™ system to ensure that the virtual UAVs behave exactly like the real ones. Then, she'll model the Back 40 — the field in the back of NASA Langley where we do our outdoor test flights— and from there, the possibilities are limitless. The whole point is to use virtual reality to create "unusual" terrain to test our ideas on, like mountains or forests.

"I could build a Mars terrain on here if you wanted," she said.

Angelica designs the terrain on the computer and then views it through the headset.
The 3D model Angelica is developing represents a huge leap forward in computer modeling in the Ai. Until now, we've flown UAVs over 2D models (aka printouts) of terrain to assess algorithm performance, which works fine, but isn't very dynamic. In addition to our new overhead projectors, the virtual reality simulations expand our simulated worlds even further and will give researchers in the Ai a better idea of how their code will behave in the real world.

"We want to get out of being restricted to the areas we're restricted to," she said. "Virtual reality lets us expand our testing range."

Virtual reality also frees the experimenter from the constraints of physics; for example, you can view a test flight from above or follow a vehicle through the air. This gives the added scientific advantage of being really, really cool.

While the task of painstakingly modeling an existing environment seems daunting, Angelica is thrilled to get to work. After graduating with a degree in aerospace engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, she spent "a long time" interning at Gulfstream and discovered a passion for computer modeling.

"I realized I didn't want to stay on the mechanical side of aerospace, so I worked on the simulators," she said.  She has been designing models ever since. The Ai is lucky to benefit from her expertise, and we're all excited to see what new capabilities she'll create for us this summer.


  1. I think Virtual Reality is about to change everything. I could be wrong, but the visceral reactions to the use of Oculus Rift are very real and powerful: it's a 'wow!' moment - and we haven't had one of those for some time.

    360 Video

  2. Although all of us dreamed about it we somehow thought of it as distant future no matter what we heard in the news, it turns out that we were right. virtual reality headset for pc