NASA Beamed a Doctor to The ISS in a World-First 'Holoportation' Achievement


There has never been a home call like this before. A NASA flight surgeon was 'holoported' to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time, appearing and chatting as a virtual presence hundreds of miles above the Earth's surface.

If this seems somewhat familiar, you're not far off. (After all, Star Trek: Voyager did contain a holographic image of an artificial physician.)

However, this is not a work of science fiction. When NASA flight surgeon Josef Schmid was beamed to the International Space Station in October, the illusion was made possible by Microsoft's 'holoportation' technology, which enables users to interact in real-time with 3D representations of remote participants.

"This is [a] completely new manner of human communication across vast distances," says Schmid. "It is a brand-new way of human exploration, where our human entity is able to travel off the planet."

Unlike traditional holographic projections that appear to float in mid-air for all to see, holoportation requires the use of an augmented reality headset, such as Microsoft's HoloLens technology, to enable the wearer to observe (and interact with) the remotely captured individual(s), who are filmed in their actual location using a multiple-camera setup.

In this case, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who was aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and wearing such a headset, held a two-way conversation with Schmid and members of his medical team, as well as Fernando De La Pena Llaca, CEO of AEXA Aerospace, which develops custom holoportation software (the kind that made this ISS session possible).

While Microsoft's holoportation technology has been there for many years – in different phases of development – it has never been employed for anything as big as this: linking Earth-based medical experts with astronauts on a trip hundreds of miles above the earth.

Nonetheless, it is precisely this kind of capacity – overcoming physical divides to link people across vast distances in space – that may be critical for future space exploration efforts. This enables scientists to communicate digitally with real-time 3D representations of distant participants on Earth, space stations, or other spacecraft, allowing collaborations that are far more engaging and immersive than typical 2D video sessions.

"Our physical body is not there, but our human entity absolutely is there," says Schmid.

"Imagine you can bring the best instructor or the actual designer of a particularly complex technology right beside you wherever you might be working on it."

The next phase in the growth of the technology is to allow completely bidirectional holoportation interactions.

Pesquet was the only person in this experiment who wore an augmented reality headset, which permitted him to experience the other participants as digital 3D holograms, while Schmid and the other participants did not.

Once all participants are similarly equipped, however, the possibilities for off-world astronauts to jump into another reality may become even more instructive and transformative – whether consulting Earth-bound doctors about a medical issue or exchanging critical ideas about mission objectives with NASA researchers.

"What it really plays into is opportunities for more longer duration spaceflight and more deep spaceflight," Christian Maender, a research director at space infrastructure company Axiom Space, explained to the Verge in 2021.

"Where you are really talking about wanting to create a human connection between your crew – no matter where they're travelling – and back to someone on the planet."

Reference(s): NASA


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