Google Glass hasn't taken off here on earth, but a similar technology could become essential equipment in space. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration is working on computerized glasses for astronauts that can guide them through how to repair a latch on their ship or conduct an experiment in space.
NASA is teaming up with a San Francisco company called Osterhout Design Group, which makes augmented-reality glasses that project information onto the lenses. The plan is to create a system where how-to guides can be uploaded to the glasses, allowing astronauts to follow directions while their hands are full. NASA's engineering teams are working on integrating their software into the glasses and, later this year, will test them in an undersea lab to simulate the environment of space flight. Eventually, the device will be submitted to NASA's flight program team for its first trip into space.
"By the fall, we will have astronaut and crew feedback," says Sean Carter, a strategic partnerships manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "It's our goal to approach the programs shortly thereafter. I don't know that the crew will let us wait that long."
Currently, astronauts rely on printed instruction manuals. When something goes wrong, they flip through index cards, bound by metal rings, for information on how to solve a problem. The process is cumbersome, particularly in an emergency, and astronauts typically resort to a phone call back to base. However, communication is less feasible the farther a ship travels from earth. On Mars, for example, it'd take 20 minutes for a message to reach someone on the home planet, Carter says.
NASA knew it needed a computer to solve this problem, preferably one that wouldn't float away in zero gravity. So the agency spent more than a decade working on software to recognize objects from video, in addition to voice-control systems. To test the application, it tried strapping a laptop to an astronaut's head. While the weightlessness of space made that awkward contraption technically possible, NASA needed hardware that was better-suited to the task, Carter says. Finally, microchips created for smartphones only recently made this kind of wearable device a reality. "We knew we were ahead of the game," he says. "For us, this is huge today, and it gets even bigger tomorrow. The further we go away from earth, the more we need this."
Last year, NASA set out to find a wearable gadget it could deploy. Agency representatives had approached Google to see whether they could use Glass for what they had in mind, but the Internet giant told them at the time that it wanted to focus on consumers, Carter says. Google has since shifted its focus to selling to businesses and discontinued sales to consumers in January. Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this year, NASA narrowed down a "ton" of submissions, finally deciding on the glasses made by ODG, says Carter. ODG, which began as a toymaker, now sells electronic gear to governments. Its products are currently being used by the U.S. military, as well as other defense and industrial customers, although the company declined to name them. ODG's heavy-duty headset, called the R6, is designed to stand up to the rigors of life in the military and make digital maintenance manuals, service guides, and construction information readable even in harsh environments. "It's the ability, in a heads-up display, to give people guidance and information, to give them check lists, directions, and see-through manuals," says Pete Jameson, ODG's chief operating officer.