In June 2015, NASA announced that they have teamed up with Microsoft to develop a new project called Sidekick which will use commercial technology to empower astronauts on the International Space Station. The goal of Sidekick is to enable station crews with assistance whenever and wherever they need it. It will use Microsoft HoloLens to provide virtual aid to astronauts working off the Earth, for the Earth. This new capability has the potential to reduce crew training requirements and increase the efficiency at which astronauts can work in space.
Sam Scimemi, director of the ISS program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, is looking forward to the collaboration with Microsoft. He said in a statement: “HoloLens and other virtual and mixed reality devices are cutting edge technologies that could help drive future exploration and provide new capabilities to the men and women conducting critical science on the International Space Station. This new technology could also empower future explorers requiring greater autonomy on the journey to Mars.”
Alex Kipman, technical fellow of the Windows and Devices Group at Microsoft, is proud of their HoloLens product and is excited that NASA has chosen to team up with them. “Microsoft HoloLens is about transforming the ways you create, connect, and explore,” he said in a statement. “Sidekick is a prime example of an application for which we envisioned HoloLens being used - unlocking new potential for astronauts and giving us all a new perspective on what is possible with holographic computing."
Both NASA and Microsoft engineers have been testing Project Sidekick and the Microsoft HoloLens aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder C9 jet to ensure that they will function as expected in free-fall before they are delivered to the microgravity environment of the space station. Sidekick works in two ways: The first way, known as “Remote Expert Mode,” and via Skype, part of Microsoft, to allow a ground operator to see what a crew member sees, provide real-time guidance, and draw annotations into the crew member’s environment to coach him or her through a task. Previously, crew members relied on written and voice instructions when performing complex repair tasks or experiments.
The second mode is called “Procedure Mode,” which augments standalone procedures with animated holographic illustrations displayed on top of the objects with which the crew is interacting. This capability could reduce the amount of training that future crews will require and could be an invaluable resource for missions deep into our solar system, where communication delays complicate difficult operations.
After the devices are delivered to the space station, crew members will test and verify the software and hardware functionality in the standalone mode. A second set of devices to be delivered on a future mission will test and verify Sidekick functionality with network connectivity to test the Remote Expert Mode. NASA expects astronauts on the station to start utilizing Sidekick by the end of the year.
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