Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

Apollo 11 VR puts users in the pilot seat of the command module.

Imagine yourself in the cramped cockpit of the Apollo spacecraft heading to the Moon. Look around to see Earth out the window. Reach out to the control panel. This is Apollo 11 VR, a virtual reality experience that enables users to relive the Apollo 11 mission and take some of the first steps on the Moon. The company behind the project — Immersive VR Education of Waterford, Ireland — calls it an “experience” or “a new type of documentary.”

The project required extensive study on the part of developers, according to Immersive VR Education CEO David Whelan. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the vast amounts of information NASA posts on publicly accessible websites.

Stephen Garber, one of two historians at NASA Headquarters who maintains the Agency’s historical websites, coordinates with volunteers to offer information on a variety of large and small projects, but the Apollo mission pages — especially the Lunar Surface Journal — are among the most popular NASA archives online.

Whelan said these repositories provided his company with extremely detailed design plans that illustrated the interiors of the spacecraft, the lander, and the command module. Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke got to experience an early version of the software before its release, and his observations helped developers improve the accuracy of the control panel for the final release.

The combination of a virtual reality environment and NASA data and media resources helped the company make its app a larger-than-life experience.

“We put him back where he sat in the 1970s, and based on his feedback, we changed a few things,” said Whelan, who believes every switch and dial on the control panel is now exactly accurate.

On NASA’s website, the team found a spectacular photo mosaic of the initial landing site created from many photos taken on earlier Apollo flights stitched together. The developers essentially drew their virtual world on top of that image.

“When players look out of the lander, they see every crater and every valley exactly as the astronauts would have seen them,” said Whelan. “Everything is cataloged really well,” he said of NASA’s websites. “I would have thought we’d have to contact NASA quite a lot more to get a lot of information that was actually freely available.”

Apollo 11 VR also includes original audio heightened with music that makes the experience feel more momentous. “We find that if you get an emotional reaction from somebody, the experience sticks with them a lot more,” Whelan said.

Immersive VR Education creates virtual classrooms. The company’s flagship product, Engage, lets up to 30 people participate in real time in a virtual lecture or meeting from anywhere in the world. Such events can then be posted online for later “experiencing.” The company built Apollo 11 VR to demonstrate a new way of teaching and learning history. “We’re trying to show the general public that virtual reality isn’t just for video games and entertainment,” Whelan said. “It’s also very useful for education.”

Though popular as a paid app, the program is free for teachers. Enthusiasts can buy it for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony PlayStation virtual reality headsets. It can also be viewed on a regular computer monitor, but much of the impact is lost without the more sophisticated equipment.

In its first year, Apollo 11 VR was purchased more than 40,000 times and that was before it was available for PlayStation headsets. Immersive VR Education went on to develop an entirely free Mars Rover experience as a demonstration of their Engage platform and hopes to start projects about other Apollo missions, as well as a Space Shuttle series around deploying and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope.

“We construe our mission broadly in that we try to cover the panoply of activities that NASA is involved in,” Garber said. “Clearly, people are still interested in the Apollo program almost 50 years after it ended.”

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This article first appeared in the July, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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