Cochrane company making Virtual Reality for astronauts
TIMMINS -- Stardust Technologies is on a mission to take virtual reality where it's never been before.
The Cochrane-based tech company is researching how simulating Earth-bound activities can help improve astronauts' mental health while on board the International Space Station (ISS) — and eventually during long-distance space travel.
"It's a very important thing that astronauts feel like they are on Earth," said the company's chief technology office, Jawad El Houssine.
"VR technology will be very, very useful for this."
Testing VR zero gravity
The team is the first to use Facebook's Oculus Quest VR headset in this way and is collaborating with the Canadian Space Agency and the National Research Council of Canada to test out how to make it work outside of Earth — since the technology was first created to work with this planet's gravity.
Shy of going to space themselves to research this, Stardust has been conducting test flights in Ottawa, using an airplane that can mimic gravity in space, on the moon and on Mars.
"We succeeded to make the Oculus Quest work 100 per cent in zero gravity," Jawad said, after conducting only a couple test flights so far.
Simulating Earth... in space
This is part of what the company calls 'Project EDEN,' with the goal being to create a fully-simulated Earth experience in space — using a combination of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and a haptic feedback suit that can simulate sensations like wind, rain and touch.
The company's CEO, Jason Michaud, said the project is intended to help astronauts with feelings of homesickness, loneliness, isolation, and stress. He compares it to feelings many people on Earth have been experiencing during the pandemic.
"Our EDEN project is going to be targeted at doing simulations where you'll be able to play, let's say golf in microgravity, for the astronauts," Michaud said.
"If you like, you could play hockey, do some meditation with other people on Earth that could be, potentially, with the astronauts while they're on the International Space Station."
(Out-of-this) world of possibilities
Michaud has high ambitions for the project. He sees it being used on the moon, when NASA builds its lunar base planned for 2024 — and even on an eventual human mission to Mars.
The need for engaging entertainment on long voyages is not a new concept for humanity, said El Houssine, thinking all the way back to the 15th century, when Spaniards would play games and sing songs on their voyage to the New World.
It stands to reason that people will need more advanced and immersive entertainment as we travel through space, he said. And so the work continues to make sure 'Project EDEN' will be ready for work on the ISS and future space voyages.
"We are hoping to be able to (have an astronaut) test that next year on the International Space Station directly," said Michaud.
Though many more microgravity test flights are needed to get to that point, he said.
'I believe you can achieve anything'
As for researching the technology's ability to help with mental health, particularly isolation, Michaud said he is planning to send El Houssine on his own journey to test the technology alone — in Antarctica.
Reflecting on the progress of 'Project EDEN' and his company — which also services the mining and medicine industries — Michaud credits it to his upbringing in northern Ontario.
He hopes to inspire young people in the region with the possibilities of technology — and hopes more entrepreneurs arise in the region.
"As long as you have the drive for it and the community to support you, I believe you can achieve anything."