Imagine an astronaut on the International Space Station sitting in a virtual-reality simulator. She controls remotely a robot's movements through her own and by seeing, hearing - even feeling - the environment it works in. That's a scenario likely to play out in the next few years, thanks in part to a savvy high school student who interned at NASA's Johnson Space Center last summer.
While forms of virtual reality (VR) have been around for years, researchers have struggled to accurately replicate the sensation of touch. Under the direction of NASA engineer Chris Lovchik, student Chris Ezell designed a glove with small air pockets that astronauts in a virtual-reality machine could wear. When someone "reaches" for a round object - thereby prompting the robot performing the task to pick up an object - air pockets in the glove compress and decompress on the astronaut's hands. The wearer feels like he is actually grabbing it.
Mr. Ezell is a second-year student at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, a two-year program at the University of North Texas that enables talented students to complete freshman and sophomore years of college while earning high school diplomas. He was one of five TAMS students awarded a $2,500 grant to intern with NASA.
The potential for virtual reality in space - and on earth - is huge, Mr. Lovchik says. Putting robots to work in hazardous environments is one advantage. The humanoid robot being built for the space station could help conduct tests and maintenance in space.
Other advantages include a VR robot's ability to perform tasks with great accuracy and the flexibility it provides for people to work remotely in a range of environments. Outside of space, the technology could be used on anything from paving a street to brain surgery, says Ezell, who started designing Websites for organizations when he was only 14. He worked long days to hone the concept for the VR glove. Though it's still being perfected, Ezell constructed the air pockets so that virtual objects have a more natural feel.
"The standard VR glove has big sensors. They are too big," Lovchik says. "You can get motion, but there's no feedback...."
NASA presented Ezell with a certificate of accomplishment and invited him back.
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