HTC sent a Vive Focus 3 to the International Space Station

HTC recently sent a Vive Focus 3 headset to the International Space Station to support the mental health of astronauts.

The Vive Focus 3 is HTC’s $1,300 standalone headset that launched in 2021. The headset uses the same Snapdragon XR2 Gen 1 chipset as the Quest 2 but with a remarkable 2.5K display resolution, higher resolution than even today’s Quest 3 or Pico 4. While HTC released the newer Vive XR Elite headset earlier this year, the Focus 3 remains primarily aimed at businesses due to its replaceable battery on the back.

Focus 3 is now on its way to the International Space Station as part of the Cargo Dragon autonomous spacecraft that SpaceX launched to resupply the station as part of NASA’s CRS-29 Commercial Service Program mission.

ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will use the headset to test how virtual reality can help astronauts’ mental health. It is the result of a collaboration between HTC, XRHealth and Nord-Space.

HTC says the reason for the experiment is that astronauts live in a “relatively isolated and cramped” environment without the natural daylight that humans have evolved to live under. It can also be a stressful job, with long scheduled activities designed to maximize station use.

The VR app, designed by XRHealth and Nord-Space, features five immersive 360-degree videos. Sunset on the hill, mountain trail in Europe, swimming with dolphins, western sea and wetlands. The idea is to allow astronauts to temporarily escape this environment and “transport to another location”.

HTC tests the Focus 3 on a microgravity simulation parabolic flight plane.

However, getting a positional tracking to work on a space station is a big deal. Headsets on the ground use the accelerometer in their IMU (inertial measurement unit) to measure the gravity vector to align with Earth orientation, but trying to use it in space causes constant drift. To solve this problem HTC has changed the tracking system to track one of the wall-mounted controllers as an anchor point, so the headset has a fixed point to align its motion.

This is not the first time this has been done.

All the way back in 2015, Microsoft sent an original Hololens AR headset to the ISS with a remote expert mode so ground crews could help astronauts with repairs and a procedure mode that covered equipment training for the new systems. Like HTC, Microsoft had to modify the device’s tracking system to work in microgravity.

In 2017, Oculus sent a Rift virtual reality headset to the International Space Station, and ESA astronauts Thomas Pesquet and Alexander Gerst used it for gravitational neuroscience experiments. Oculus replaced the Rift’s built-in tracking system with a third-party solution better suited for customization for microgravity.

Virtual reality could be essential for deep space missions

With NASA’s Artemis program aiming to establish a permanent base on the moon later this decade and eventually send humans to Mars, VR could become a vital tool to help astronauts escape and relax on these long-duration deep space missions. In addition to the immersive environments that simulate the return to Earth, astronauts can use the headsets as personal theaters to enjoy traditional media on a virtual screen much larger than the small screens they can carry.

While HTC’s experiment currently only has 360 videos, it could set a precedent for continued exploration of the benefits of virtual reality for astronaut mental health.

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