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Microsoft HoloLens to create first 'manned' Mars mission

Microsoft introduces an augmented-reality headset that NASA plans to use to roam a virtual Mars starting later this year.

A screen view from OnSight, which enables scientists to collaborate on a virtual Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Wednesday, Microsoft jumped into the void left by Google Glass ending its open beta by introducing HoloLens, an augmented-reality headset. Unlike Glass, though, HoloLens seems to be designed less for walking around in public and freaking people out and more for getting work done in new environments like, say, Mars.

In Microsoft's big reveal of HoloLens at the Redmond, Wash., campus this week, the company touted a partnership with NASA to develop software called OnSight, which will allow scientists to work virtually on Mars using HoloLens and data from the Curiosity rover. Officials at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which houses Curiosity's Mars Science Laboratory mission, said the new tool could change our perception of the red planet.

"Previously, our Mars explorers have been stuck on one side of a computer screen. This tool gives them the ability to explore the rover's surroundings much as an Earth geologist would do field work here on our planet," said Jeff Norris, JPL's OnSight project manager, in a statement.

When scientists at JPL or around the world don a HoloLens headset running OnSight, they will be surrounded by images from the rover's location, allowing them to walk around the virtual environment and explore in detail. The headset exploits the ability of holograms to add a natural sense of depth that helps people understand spatial relationships. Scientists will even be able to crouch down in the virtual environment and examine rocky Martian outcroppings from different angles.

After getting a better sense of what the rover's surroundings are like using OnSight, scientists -- using gestures and menu commands within the virtual environment -- will be able to plan, test and preview the results of experiments Curiosity might perform on Mars. It's a lot like any of the many flight simulators you've seen in movies or games, but this is an actual holographic re-creation of a real environment on another planet.

The Curiosity team will begin testing OnSight later this year, and it may play a role in the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission and perhaps even a real manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.

If HoloLens does make it to Mars, at least we won't have to worry about Martians getting the first impression that we humans are just a bunch of Glassholes.

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