When the first human sets foot on the surface of Mars in the not-so-distant future, he or she may have regular people standing right next to them watching in stunning virtual reality.
"If we can let people explore Mars in the same ways they have learned to explore Earth, then we think we can become more effective," said Jeff Norris of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the 2016 Vision Summit, a conference dedicated to virtual and augmented reality.
Ever since the first rover showed up on Mars in 1997, scientists have been studying the surface mostly from behind computer screens. "We started to work on ways to break through those boundaries," Norris said, noting one application in particular that is helping on the Red Planet.
Norris presented his thoughts on a joint partnership between NASA and Microsoft called OnSight, which has allowed researchers to virtually meet on the Martian surface and explore the area together, using data from JPL rovers on the surface and satellite photography from above.
"We want to bring the surface of Mars inside their offices," Norris said.
While the virtual reality experience is only available to researchers at NASA right now, Norris floated the possibility that eventually it would make its way into the consumer world and allow anyone to become a virtual astronaut. "Call them telenauts," he said.
Here's the scenario: You don your shiny new Microsoft HoloLens device and load up the VR experience of Mars, which all comes from NASA image stocks. While walking around the surface, you spot something interesting and mark it for scientists to check out later.
Think of it as crowd-sourced space exploration.
"We've built marvelous telescopes" to explore the universe in the past, Norris said. "The role of VR [is] how it can act as a new telescope for us."