Astronauts use virtual reality to study perception in space

Vectation is a VR experience that helps scientists learn more about how astronauts measure the size and motion of objects in space.

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Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, a few days after entering the International Space Station on December 3, faced a major challenge for space pilots: Learn how his perception changes as a result of space flight.

Scientists know that in microgravity, astronauts often feel as if they are moving if they are moving to another object, even when they are immobile, which is a phenomenon that makes it more difficult to perceive depth. This will be a particular problem when using the robotic Canadarm2 when catching cargo spacecraft. While capturing a successful astronaut’s record is almost flawless, scientists are working to reduce all sorts of complications. After all, the crew needs a load to keep the space functioning.

This is where the experimental challenge of St. Jacques was founded. Saint-Jacques spent half an hour participating in Vection, a virtual reality experience that will help scientists learn more about how astronauts evaluate the size and motion of objects in space. He donated a VR headset and took part in three experiments: determining the size of the object, moving it to the virtual world, where he thought the object was placed in the corridor, and determined how it perceived the inclined and visual acceleration.

The results of the experiment could be used to improve the safety of operations on the ISS board and also to assist future astronaut crews working on the moon or Mars.

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"By understanding mistakes in self-movement and perceiving distance, and how they can change in space over time, we can identify tasks that involve any of these judgments," said Lawrence Harris, chief investigator at the University of Toronto, New York. Email to Seeker.

When using Vection, astronauts are guided through the screen by three tasks. First of all, they are accelerating “moving” along the virtual corridor, causing a sense of movement, even though in reality they still remain.

"Then whether we value this visual acceleration interpretation as acceleration due to gravity, we ask them to point to a new corner of the floor that should be tilted if they think the direction of their previous movement is 'up,'" Harris said. .

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In the second experiment, astronauts see a target in the same corridor. The target disappears as the astronauts practically "move" along the corridor, and they press the button to go to the place where they think it was the target.

"It tells us how strong the visual movement is in space: how much vision you have to move," Harris explained.

The third experiment asks astronauts to compare the size of an object in a virtual corridor where they have the object in their hand. "The only way they can measure the size of an object is to know how far it is, so it allows us to measure their perceived depth," Harris added.

This work not only has an impact on the ISS, but also on the future of any space – including NASA's desire to establish a lunar orbital platform – a gateway to a space station near the moon in the 2020s – and for crews to move to Mars in the coming decades. Knowledge of in-depth perception of space can help astronauts improve their ability to access emergency transits, control spacecraft, or control robotic platforms.

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Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques used Vection ahead of the December 3, 2018 space mission. | University of York

There are also programs on earth, such as better control of moving vehicles or assistance to those who have difficulty balancing, such as the elderly.

"The main goal is to understand how our brains are able to move the signs of self-movement," Harris said, "and to provide a quantitative model of how sensory information is combined to make it happen."

Each participating astronaut will be tested five times. Saint-Jacques has already passed two tests – one on the spot and the other – after his arrival in the ISS. The next three measurements will be made when it is fully adapted to space (80 to 100 days), when it adjusts to life on Earth (four to six days after access), and when it has fully recovered from space (50 to 70 after access). After the day).

We will be patient until we expect results from the Vection experiment. There are only small crews in the ISS, and at least seven astronauts must be involved. The final data summary report is expected to be published by 2023, just one year before the planned completion of the space station program.