I'm a Seattle-based writer, technologist and storyteller. I'm interested in the dialogue of technology, science and play in our lives.
Bylines at Forbes Tech, Wired Geekdad, Ars Technica, Beckett Massive Online Gamer Magazine and many et ceteras.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
Seattle’s Pacific Science Center is hosting Pompeii: The Exhibition, the last stop in the exhibit’s North American tour. I walked through the exhibit with my 18 year-old son at my side. The question that remained for me was “why should a teenage kid care about an ancient Roman city that was buried under volcanic pumice and ash almost 2,000 years ago? Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian once rather ominously said,
The destruction of the past or, rather, of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.
I take up the gauntlet and would respond to Hobsbawm that Pompeii’s ancient history still holds very meaningful lessons for the education of “young men and women.” And providing a good civic education would mandate us to teach the whole story of history and its actors. I consider, then, the museum visit as an opportunity for a social and historical experience of remembering the past and studying how it connects to and informs our present experience.
Going to a museum to learn about Pompeii and its ancient history is a very worthwhile exercise for anyone, but especially edifying for children. The onsite museum visit is the fulcrum of an immersive educational experience. Children are able to connect with art and art history when given the opportunity to see the physical trappings of another culture in its everyday context. This grounds their museum experience in a sense of immediacy and makes it more mundane and more real to them. Seeing the everyday implements of the hearth: the kitchen, the living room and the bedroom in the home lives of its citizens connects the sensory data to a more relateable experience for children.
I posed this question about Pompeii’s relevance to the local curriculum to Pacific Science Center’s Diana Johns, Vice President of Exhibits and Life Sciences, who stated that,
Some of the eye witness testimony during the Vesuvius eruption puzzled modern day volcano experts. Then Mt. St. Helen’s erupted in May of 1980 and the manner in which that eruption manifested, helped to explain what Pliny the Younger and others tried to describe 2000 years before. Volcanic eruptions millennia apart suddenly had things to inform about the other. Our languages, food, literature, music, numerical systems, religions, politics, advances in every field of science — everything we are today and the manner with which we navigate the world, derives and builds from the contribution of these ancient civilizations.
Onsite museum exhibits reach back, not to a vague world history lesson, but center one’s understanding on ordinary people who lived in domiciles and used implements much like we do today. Children who see an ancient Pompeian handled iron grill (pictured above) can immediately connect it to the barbeque grill on their own porch, and are able to make a contextual link to their own experience.
Johns also shared her thoughts on the museum exhibit’s potential for “hands-on historical education” to
Create an immersive experience as a hook and keep it relevant. POMPEII: The Exhibition does a really nice job of anchoring beautifully preserved, recognizable (to modern eyes) artifacts with a warm and vibrant colors, cool architectural features and large images. Visitors get the feeling of having stepped back in time, whether it’s the atrium of a wealthy Pompeii home or a busy Pompeii street. Different soundscapes help complete the sense of place. The exhibition does not assume a level of classical knowledge. Information within the experience stays at a high level, focusing on the most significant details rather than minutia and it’s presented in a variety of ways so it remains accessible no matter how actively or passively one likes to learn. Some people read everything, while others are more interested in getting their information from the videos, or other media like the audio tour, etc.
An immersive exhibit like this helps to humanize ancient civilizations like Roman Pompeii. Visitors learn how they lived, what they ate, what they wore, how they bathed, entertained and were entertained. One experiences Pompeii and its people as something real and familiar. They, these ancient people, they are like us. This makes the ground shaking, smoke filled eruption theater that much more devastating. And when the eruption is over, visitors encounter six body casts, two of whom are youngsters, making a lasting impression. At a minimum, we hope visitors walk away with a broader understanding of an ancient civilization and perhaps become interested enough to learn more after they exit the exhibit.
Our own experience connects back, then to this great (and abridged) story of everyday people in the ancient world. Most people are already acquainted with the radiant frescoes and mosaic masterpieces of ancient Rome that depict mythological figures, glorious pictures of everyday life and beautiful portraits of patrician families and their sumptuous wealth. But these are only a few tesserae in the grand mosaic of what everyday life was like in ancient Rome.
I believe that we have a civic mandate to learn the unabridged history of the world so we can foster a more responsible, civic education of all of our citizens. We have a responsibility to study what our human past is and how it is shaping our lives in ways we might not realize — our “history” is a living and organic continuum of everyday, human actions that have always worked together to recreate the future.
Studying these human interactions of the past challenges us to uncover a more accurate, historiographic picture of human history outside the orthodox, patrician one. We give an historic voice to the marginalized, forgotten tesserae of the “story”, the historical actors and events that continue to shape our modern ethos. Walt Whitman said this in 1860,
Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you?
Have you not learned great lessons form those who braced themselves against you and disputed the passage with you?
It is ethically necessary to piece together this unabridged picture of our past. To do this we must create a reckoning. We must form a more complete perspective and know the mixture of people in the story of the first century C.E. in Pompeii, the gladiators, the slaves and the prostitutes. We must know the good, the bad and the ugly — all that affect our understanding of what life was really like in this ancient city. Here are some points that may widen our perspective of the non-patrician actors in Pompeii’s history:
In 79 C.E., Pompeii was home to between 7,000 to 20,000 people (the population estimate is highly disputed by scholars). Rough estimates of the slave population are between five to seven slaves per household, according to a recent book. Patrician households (e.g., House of the Menander) would have had even more slaves.
Assuming a population of 10,000, one scholarly estimate puts Pompeii’s brothels at 35, although there is little consensus on this figure. The prostitute population, then would be at around 100. The prostitution industry was in fact a very profitable part of the one third of the local economy that was centered around commerce. It was connected with local inns and, furthermore a business that was invested in by local Pompeiian patricians.
Gladiators in ancient Rome were prisoners of war, slaves bought for the purpose, or criminals sentenced to serve in the gladiatorial schools. They captivated the public’s fascination and were depicted on mosaics, lamps and funeral monuments. But gladiators’ social status remained the same as the common criminal in Roman society, and they had a 17% death rate per show in Pompeii’s amphitheater, according to a seminal British Museum exhibition in 2013.
The archaeological record has shown that cultural influences spread via the regional trade flowing into Pompeii as an ancient trading center and gateway to the Mediterranean. The city was an important source of oil presses, importer of wine from Crete and exporter of wine and garum.
Pompeii’s complex cultural identity according to recent scholarship, is one that explored other languages, expressing these various cultural influences in art, construction style, materials of houses and the city’s urban plan. In the area’s pottery shards, graffiti and excavated layers, we find the influences of the Oscan, Etruscan, Samnite, Greek, Roman and Punic civilizations. Wallace-Hadrill calls this historical confluence the city’s “ cultural power of speaking different languages simultaneously, and playing them off against each other.”
When we think of the life of ancient Pompeii, I believe that it is relevant to think of all of her citizens, to never forget the slaves, the gladiators and the prostitutes who also wrote some of the pages of her vibrant, colorful and tragic history. Their lives and their stories are very much alive in the story of this city.
When visiting Seattle, take yourself and your children to Pompeii: The Exhibition, on through May 25th at the Pacific Science Center and let me know what you think.
How Sailing Teaches Girls Science, Engineering, Teamwork And Leadership Awesomeness
One Woman’s Mission To Teach Kids The Love Of The Earth In The Salish Sea
Michael Venables: Tell me a little more about your business, and how you got started in marine education.
Morgan Lohrey: Well, my dad and I own the company, San Juan Classic Daysailing. We started about 12 years ago, and we had a wooden boat shop. We started the charter company with the boats that we refinished ourselves in our restoration shop, wanting to give people the opportunity to explore the San Juan Islands like we do with our family. [And]explore the area in a little more intimate manner, explore the coasts and shallow bays and other opportunities out there. We put together packages that we like to do ourselves with our family, and offer them to other people.
Venables: What do you think is the most important service you provide with regard to sailing education?
Lohrey: We like to focus on the historical aspects of the sailboats. They are all classic, fully-restored wooden boats. We don’t use any new, mechanized equipment. The only stuff we have on board that’s new is safety equipment: lifeboats, life jackets, GPS, things like that. But, the mechanics of the boat itself is all human-powered, historically accurate equipment. And we take that craft that is very engaging and powerful and then take kids out to explore the wilds of Puget Sound and beyond—in a way that they can directly interact with nature and the pristine environment, without altering it as we explore it.
Venables: What skills does sailing education develop in kids?
Lohrey: I think—confidence. I think that it gives people kind of a feeling that they can empower themselves to do wild things as well. Sailing a schooner or a tall ship is stuff that’s kind of from a bygone era and inaccessible to most people these days, as are the areas where they can go [to sail]. And learning this may look very intimidating at first. You would never know what this line did or what that piece of equipment did. But after a couple of hours on board and certainly a couple of days on our longer trips, people become empowered.
They feel confident that they can get out there and be part of the history and part of the world that they are engaging in. Also, it’s very good for team building. The schooner Dirigo cannot be sailed by one person alone and so teamwork, camaraderie and a sense of adventure is really fostered on every trip.
Venables: How does teaching sailing support the overall goals of STEM education for girls?
Lohrey: I think it’s a hugely important thing. I think the maritime industry at large has always been a man’s world. Nowadays, you are seeing more women on board: women first mates, women engineers and women captains. A number of the sailing programs in the area and around the world do specifically women-focused sailing adventures. I think that this is a fantastic setting for women and young girls to display that they are just as capable as men. There are a lot of fantastic parts of sailing that are electrical, engineering. There’s weather … there’s science. There are all kinds of things that have always been a man’s world. I think that it’s great for young women to see older women in these positions of leadership and not be afraid to jump in there and do it.
We had a family just the other day come [sailing] with us, with three young daughters. When we left port, they had no idea that they were going to be involved. And they ended up raising the mainsail all by themselves and learning about the physics and the dynamics of the wind and how it provides lift for the sails. By the time they got off the boat, they knew how a sailboat worked. And they knew how to trim a sheet and tend the helm. It’s a really great opportunity for girls to get involved in activities that are not really thought of as “girl activities.”
Venables: What do you envision as your main mission for the years ahead?
Lohrey: With our business, we are kind of diverging into two different branches. We have our smaller boats here in Friday Harbor that will continue to offer [sailing programs]: from a two-hour sail to a full-day private charter exploring the islands, getting out to the outer islands, visiting the ports, giving people the opportunity to explore this part of the Salish Sea. And then the schooner Dirigo, is about to embark on a very exciting adventure. September she’s going to be sailing down the Pacific coast to San Francisco, San Diego, down to Mexico and from there, points unknown. People can join us on board for one leg or more. We’ll be doing lots of adventuring, exploring all different kinds of different bio regions, interacting with other schooners that we are in contact with, doing some racing and historical sailing trips. I think the most exciting aspect of it all for me is kind of the unknown. We have our bread and butter here with the smaller boat tours that we are going to continue to offer. The schooner Dirigo II is going to give us the opportunity to do some real sailing and some real adventuring.
Venables: What happens on a typical voyage and what range of basic sailing skills do you teach?
Lohrey: On the smaller boats, we generally do the two-hour day sails or half and full-day private charters and sunset sails. That gives people a little hands-on experience out there. We do a little safety briefing when we begin and then we go over the basic functioning of the boat: what to expect during a sailing trip, what lines do what, the standing rigging and the running rigging. And then once we’re out we involve people as much as they want in getting the sails up. What we learn is how the sails work with the wind and how we’re interacting with the currents and the different topography of the islands. When people get off, they have a pretty good understanding of the basic physics of the sailboat. With the schooner, it’s a little more in depth. We have lots of different kinds of sails. We have gaff-rigged sails and the traditional Marconi, the traditional triangular-shaped sails. So we have lift, we have friction, we have a mechanical advantage with all of our rigging. When we set out on the schooner, it’s all the same, times ten. And people get an opportunity to learn all of it. The schooner does full day, private charters and multi-day adventures to the islands and then, of course, beyond. By the time people get off, they have a very solid understanding of not only of the principles of sailing, but also of the actual running of the specific boat and boats like it.
Venables: What is the message that you’d like to communicate to kids who want to sail?
Lohrey: I think the main thing we want to inspire kids to do is to look high. Our captain, Art Lohrey, the founder of the business (and my father), was a foster child growing up. And never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined as a child that he would own a schooner or be able to experience anything like this. He is a fantastic teacher and loves taking children out on the boat. His message to kids is “you can do it too.” He’s very emphatic about the idea that kids can do anything on the boat, (as long as it’s safe), that the adults can do. And never think that anything is out of your reach.
My son and I were fortunate to take part in a wonderful afternoon’s sailing trip on the cutter Iris with Captain Alan Niles. In addition to his sailing credentials, he is an experienced photographer, climber and scuba diver.
I was honored to meet Captain Morgan Lohrey, her colleagues and some of her crew. She shared her passions with me about her ongoing mission to pass on centuries-old maritime traditions. Captain Lohrey and her colleagues are teaching sailing to a new generation of kids, grounded with the lessons of environmental stewardship. And along the way, they’re helping them to find themselves. Somewhere in the salty waves of the Salish Sea.
How Jane Poynter Rocks Women’s Science Leadership and STEM Education For Girls
I was fortunate to catch Jane Poynter one very early August morning, before she launched into her busy daily schedule. We spoke about the importance of STEM education, the challenges of getting to Mars, the lessons she learned from Biosphere 2 and how traveling to space will permanently change our view of the Earth and the universe.
Michael Venables: As one of only seven percent of women in the space technology field, how can you provide the leadership necessary to inspire other women to study STEM subjects and enter this scientific field?
Jane Poynter: I very much believe in leadership by doing. The very fact that I am one of the few women in this field I think, demonstrates to young women and girls that this is something that is possible for them. World View is very involved in education. You may have recently seen an announcement that (in late 2014) we’ll be flying three research and education payloads, so the payloads that we are flying can really demonstrate the capability of our systems.
One of those is an educational experiment and not precisely for women but, certainly, I believe that education is a large part of what World View is about.
And then lastly, I am personally involved in a non-profit called Blue Marble Institute that is directly involved in STEM education. It’s kind of fun. A lot of it is about getting their hands on the right learning tools, so kids can take the concepts that they learned in books and put them to use. It’s incredibly effective. One of the projects that was done recently in the classroom was an avionics UAV competition. And the winning team was the girls. We teamed up with a company called Universal Avionics for the competition and they did the judging. Universal Avionics took the girls on their corporate airplane. That’s what they received for winning the competition. There’s this fantastic picture of them sitting on the plane with these ginormous grins on their faces.
These are the kinds of experiences that I think can be life-changing. And so I’m really dedicated to helping kids to see different opportunities for themselves in the future, girls and boys alike.
Venables: What plans does World View have in place to make experiments in space more affordable to educational institutions?
Poynter: World View is already working with colleges in providing opportunities for flights. We hope to be able to provide flights at very affordable rates for schools. And maybe even put scholarships in place. These are not in place yet, but we certainly have plans to do a lot of things with schools at all levels, through competitions, through flying experiments [and] maybe even flying a teacher [up with] a group of students. Can you imagine that a child goes up with his or her experiment and is able to do an experiment on the edge of space themselves? What an amazing experience that would be!
Venables: What are the biggest technical challenges that we face in creating “biosphere” environments that could enable us to live on harsh environments such as the Moon or Mars?
Poynter: There are a number of challenges. Certainly life support. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to make life-support systems more reliable. But probably one of the largest challenges to getting on the surface of Mars is that—is getting on the surface of Mars itself. That’s probably the biggest near-term challenge to setting up a base on Mars. I know that it seems odd, because we've landed vehicles on Mars before. But they've all been relatively small. And the challenge with Mars is that you have an atmosphere and a gravity that are working against each other. In the sense that, when you come into the atmosphere of Earth, the atmosphere is slowing the vehicle down and when you get to Mars, the challenge is that the atmosphere is so thin that it doesn't really slow the vehicle down as much but it tends to keep the vehicle up. So you have this really hard-pressed issue of beginning to land a large mass on Mars. I’m sure it’s solvable, but it’s a big challenge.
Venables: What is the biggest lesson you learned from Biosphere 2?
Poynter: I think one of the major things we learned in Biosphere 2was the human factor. [laughs]. Yeah, we succeeded. We got through our two years . . . but it was difficult. There have been a number of studies with groups in isolation. The human dynamic is very difficult … for observation. For very short duration, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
But when you’re sending people on long missions—psychology, personality, character, group dynamics —all of that really comes to play. For us, it didn't cause us to fail, [but] we had a lot of dynamics problems. You might have seen the Mars-500 [mission] where there were six [people] in a large simulation for 520 days, I think it was. They made it through the 520 days, but they weren't very happy. Most of them did not come out in a happy condition. And this is why I think we need [to do] a lot of work. It’s a struggle, because it could compromise safety, it could compromise the mission and it certainly could compromise creativity, which is another challenge.
Venables: What is the ETA for a human settlement on Mars?
Poynter: I've been waiting a couple of decades now. Let’s get there already! But you may have heard of Inspiration Mars. It’s a project that’s hoping to do a Mars flyby in 2021. NASA wants to be on Mars by 2030. Mars One wants to be on Mars sometime in the 2020s. So, oh please say that we’ll be on Mars by 2030, or before!
Venables: What project is most important to you in terms of space exploration and how do you want to move it forward?
Poynter: I am very focused on World View at the moment. Because we’ve been talking about the accessibility of space for a long time, and I think that with World View we have the opportunity of making the frontier of space truly accessible. No, it’s not going to take us the moon or Mars but it is going to allow people to go to space, to go to the spaceflight era to really have an experience in space. People would not envision themselves in a transfer rocket in some way. Spaceflight has been thought of by most people as only possible through rocketry. And that certainly seems to be the case if you’re trying to go into low-Earth orbit or beyond. But, to be able to go up and get some of that experience and see Earth in space, that until now, only the astronauts have had. We’re wanting to demonstrate that there are other possibilities. And that space flight doesn't have to be about high seas and space suits. That it can be really comfortable and luxurious and something that many of us can aspire to.
Venables: What in the way of government-private partnerships can drive U.S. space exploration forward to get to Mars and beyond?
Poynter: It is a very exciting time to be involved in space right now—a very dynamic time. And this can be very uncomfortable for people. But it’s an extremely exciting time, looking at how many different projects there are. We will need some very ambitious partnerships to take us beyond the planet Earth, and I think we will see some very ambitious partnerships arriving. Of course, Space X is the poster child for commercial space flight, but it has been in partnership with NASA, and Space X has not done it on its own. And so, that’s the kind of partnership that’s crucial. I think you are going to see non-profit partnerships with NASA and maybe with corporations. Inspiration Mars is a non-profit. And it’s a foundation. And, I think you are going to see more of that kind of thing. It’s incredibly dynamic, and I’m sure there are partnerships that will arise that we never even imagined possible.
Venables: Would you have any personal message to share with us on how we begin thinking of space exploration?
Poynter: I think that what is so very exciting about space is that it pulls us in two different directions. It pulls us out, beyond the cradle of this planet on which we are evolved into a completely new realm of possibilities. And it also, I believe, calls us closer to planet Earth, because you get to see it and experience it from a perspective that we simply can not when we are down on the planet itself. I think it’s such an inspiring endeavor for humanity. And, I think that audacious projects in space, (bringing it back to STEM education now), I think one of the most exciting things about really, truly audacious projects in space, like Inspiration Mars, is they can inspire a generation. Like Apollo did. Apollo inspired one, maybe two generations of innovators.
Our imaginations have been branded with the images of the first men on the moon. They led the pack. They did it first, only because there were no opportunities for advancement for women, even after completing the requisite science education. Women in the space exploration field have “come a long way baby” and have turned the work of study and field training into a track record of stellar achievement. Let us note the many women who spearhead STEM education, brought science to NASA as Chief Scientist, commanded the Space Shuttle, commanded the International Space Station, and who show leadership in the field of space exploration. And there are signs that the political winds are wafting towards a woman U.S. presidential candidate. Would a woman president better support women’s STEM education and women’s leadership of the U.S. space program? We shall see in 2016. In the meantime, Jane Poynter is a great example of one such woman who has humanity’s long-held fixation of getting to Mars in her hands. We hope this will, by default, rekindle more NASA-private and non-profit partnerships for space exploration.
But Poynter’s most important achievement ever may just be the flicker in the eyes of Joscelin Peralta and Mikayla Pasqualone. Sitting in the Universal Avionics Cessna after their contest win, these girls share the fire of self belief and a very personal victory. And I imagine they must have a sense that education (and their hard work) has won the day for the girls this time.
This is the fuel that will impel science’s future exploration of space for boys and girls. And probably put the first woman’s boots on Mars.
How NASA integrates video game technologies into human-guided robotic space exploration
No matter how completely technics relies upon the objective procedures of the sciences, it does not form an independent system, like the universe: it exists as an element in human culture and it promises well or ill as the social groups that exploit it promise well or ill.
— Lewis Mumford
I had the opportunity a couple weeks ago to speak with NASA’s Jeff Norris about the agency’s ongoing development of human-robotic interfaces for space exploration. Norris heads up the Planning Software Systems Group (Planning and Execution Systems) at NASA JPL. His group is doing the most advanced (and the coolest) research in the world on how to integrate video game and consumer technologies into the technical framework of human-guided, robotic space exploration.
Norris was able to confirm that a Sony-Magic Lab interactive space exploration module on the PS4 would play a “major part of the strategy that we’re pursuing in this area.” He added that a lot of the technologies being developed in the video game industry are highly applicable to the work being done at NASA. So what kind of research is his group at NASA JPL up to?
Norris leads a set of projects in a project group that is known as HRS (Human-Robotic Systems). This is the group designing the future of human-robotic communication. It’s called R.A.P.I.D., a communication protocol that NASA has developed that establishes a consistent way for robots to communicate with the systems that control them. He says that as we consider the future of human space exploration, it is more of a cooperation between humans and their robotic tools, robots that are supporting us in our human exploration.
The video below shows the JACO robot arm being manipulated in real time using the Xbox One Kinect, combining Kinect’s position tracking and the Oculus’s rotational tracking, the operator receives a first-person view. Future work will include integrating sensor array data into the scene deploying the Robonaut 2 humanoid on the ISS with the same technology.
The expectation, Norris says, is that there will be many kinds of robots that are specialized for different purposes. To try and make mission robots easier to control by astronauts and mission control, one of the developed protocols is for robots to speak in a consistent fashion. R.A.P.I.D. was developed by NASA-JPL, Ames and Johnson Space Centers and open-sourced, so that anyone with an interest in robotics can adapt it to their own robots. Within the Human-Robotics Systems project, Norris maintains specialized areas of interest. He is involved with the development of interfaces — the visualization technologies that will make humans beings more effective when they are controlling robots — when they are interacting with the data that those robots return to mission control.
I asked Norris what specific video game technologies NASA is using in the larger NASA enterprise of integrating it into its most advanced research and development efforts. These involve some core video game technologies and some that is what he calls “on the fringe” of video game tech. The list includes projects with the Oculus Rift head-mounted display, and a long-term working relationship with Microsoft, with NASA having done software development work with the v.1 generation Kinect sensor before it was released to the general market. This led to a number of projects, among them the XBOX Live video game, Mars Rover Landing, NASA’s first console video game, released in July 2012, just before the Rover landing. NASA has had some discussions at a high level with Nintendo and is working with Sony’s Magic Lab, as mentioned previously.
NASA is currently working with Sixense, the company behind the STEM System’s wireless motion tracking technology. Norris mentioned that they had been sharing data with the company and some of the applications they had been working on. Sixense took some of that and they adapted their STEM sensors to allow an animated astronaut model to walk around a Martian scene with the Rover. STEM System’s motion tracking and control are added to the virtual Martian landscape in the video, showing the level of immersion and interaction that can be experienced by the user/operator.
Norris also mentions NASA/JPL’s work with Leap Motion, not strictly speaking, a device restricted to gaming. It’s a 3-D motion and gesture controller for 3D game applications, instructional 3D music applications, 3D design and 3D learning environments. But he emphasizes that gaming in particular is not NASA/JPL’s core focus, but really consumer technology. These are the devices have had so much money invested in them [so as] to be highly usable, and [that] NASA is finding to be quite applicable to current projects.
Another company that NASA/JPL is working with, Norris adds, is ZSpace, a company that make 3D holographic imaging displays that allow interaction with simulated objects in virtual environments. Both Leap Motion and ZSpace are being tested as interface technologies for future NASA robots such as the All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) Rover, pictured below in an advanced research task of “rough and steep terrain lunar surface mobility.”
Norris also mentions that NASA/JPL makes a lot of use of PrimeSense’s sensors, (3D “depth sensing”) 3D-range sensing technology he says is very similar to the sensor inside the first-generation Kinect. NASA/JPL is also a contributing member of the Google Glass development program.
Radhakrishnan, the chairman of India’s ISRO, had commented in November 2013 (with much brouhaha in the press) on how conducting limited, more comprehensive ground tests has helped the Indian space agency operate on a lean, cost-effective budget for the Mangalyaan mission.
I asked Norris how feasible it would be for NASA to use virtual reality technology to conduct simulated ground tests and perhaps save money during costly functional testing of Mars mission craft. Norris told me he remains passionate about using virtual reality in space exploration for both testing and mission execution. But he hesitates to say that VR has the potential to replace many of NASA spacecraft ground tests. Many of the tests deal with the performance of physical components of the system and the ways that the software, the avionics and the hardware of the vehicle interact with each other, especially in the extreme environmental conditions that are encountered in space, and in places like planet Mars.
Virtual reality’s promise is to engage a human operator with a task in a way that is highly natural to them, in a way, Norris adds, that is very similar to what they engage with and interact with in the natural world. NASA has used virtual reality in mission rehearsals for crew members at the Dallas Space Center for many years. It’s reaching a little too far for VR technology to replace, for example, an environmental test for a spacecraft, Norris says. It is difficult to justify or to declare how much testing is enough, he adds. But, Norris points out, NASA engineers still discover new things they didn’t expect—that have threatened and even ended missions. He cautions that those tests, while they may seem expensive and cumbersome, do have a purpose.
I asked Norris how NASA could use modular, multi-use robotic exploration techniques (as in the Modular Common Spacecraft Bus) to reach Deming’s quality ideal of “faster, better, cheaper” while minimizing risks to mission astronauts and hardware. He is quick to point out several examples at NASA that point to some “creative reuse” of mission components, such as the Phoenix Mars Mission (August 2007), which was very similar in many ways to the failed Mars Polar Lander Mission (January 1999). Some of the flexible barecomponents from the Mars Polar Lander were used — pieces of hardware were used in flight (that were meant to be discarded), were used again. Norris adds that other things had changed about the spacecraft, including many of those instruments, so the system had to accommodate the reuse of those components. Norris points out that one can find many other examples throughout NASA missions where they had to get creative in such a way to simply control costs, and get more done.
Norris’s specialty, however, lies in developing “ground software,” having spent 15 years developing the systems that control NASA spacecraft. In that area, they have embraced and have directly benefited from the“modular architecture” I mentioned earlier. For example, Norris points out that a significant portion of the control software for Spirit and Opportunity, Phoenix and the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover are built on top of an architecture called OSDR — involving Eclipse, a component-based framework for the Java programming language. Norris mentions that NASA is now looking forward towards more web-based architecture and from there is again emphasizing component-based architecture, and his team is looking to choose one of them which is advantageous to the needs of his NASA team.
Norris reminds me of one of the philosophies floating around NASA. It is trying to extract what NASA workers call “multiple-mission capabilities”— the parts of the operation systems that apply to multiple missions into the core packages, and then is0late the mission-specific code that they need for a particular mission: things that might pertain to a particular instrument, or a particular destination. He adds that they have had a lot of success reducing costs using that strategy.
I asked Norris what he would tell the wo(man) on the street about what robots will be able to do for us in space. How does he manage to characterize the promises of robotic space exploration to the public? This is clearly the thing Norris is most passionate about: thinking about how people are going to interact with robots in the future of space exploration.
We want to go to a lot of different places. Mars is interesting, and we want to go there very much, but there are so many other places in the solar system. The ability to build a robot that is perfectly suited to a potentially very hazardous environment, that’s going to go swimming in the rains of Saturn, or something like that. The ability to build a robot that is optimized for that task, and then to control it in a way that makes you feel like you are there, to me feels like a very powerful competence. Because, here we are, able to use technologies that make us feel present in that environment, but in a way of inhabiting a robotic avatar that is perfectly attuned to that environment. That’s pretty phenomenal.
Norris is quick to emphasize that, right now, with our existing technologies, it wouldn't be desirable to put a human being, no matter how nice their space suit, in the rings of Saturn. But NASA can put a robot there and control it in a way that makes us feel like we are right there, floating in the midst of the Saturnian rings.
Norris says that robotic avatars are taking scale to [the point of] including so many people in the experience, in the journey of exploration. He adds that he would love to see a future, as he puts it,
looking back on the 1969 Apollo moment when 600 million people sat in front of a television and watched Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. I think there was a magic about that — that was wrapped up in the fact that not only were we doing something that had never been done before, but so many people were there with us. And they were there because we found a medium, in television, that engaged them and let them feel a part of it, in a way that they had never experienced before.
Looking to the future, Norris believes that robots and the kinds of interfaces NASA is working on can deliver us a “new Apollo moment” and envisions how
We look forward to the day when we put human boots on the soil of Mars. It will be a human accompanied by robots who are supporting them. And I want a billion human beings to be standing right there beside the astronaut, inhabiting those robotic avatars, almost welcoming them to the surface of Mars. That, I think, is the promise of these technologies.
Norris adds that then, when we look forward to exploring beyond the solar system, to other places, that one of the nice things about using robots is that we can send them in many different directions at once. He explains that even if the robots take many years to reach their destination, we can basically wait for each of the robots to arrive, and then just flit, just jump between them and consume the data that they are returning for us. Robotic data jumping transter, as it were.
Norris sees robots as “marvelous tools” for exploration — a great support to and a companion to human space exploration, which he finds also very exciting.
I asked Norris about the SuperBall Bot Tensegrity Planetary Lander project, the space exploration robots known as “tensegrity robots.” Norris sees this NASA Ames project as a great example of the diversity and the ingenuity of the people who develop robots at NASA. He muses that he doesn't spend his time thinking about new kinds of robots, but he thinks about how to drive them.
Norris maintains that one of the things that makes his job very fun is that he has learned that there is no limit to the ingenuity of the people who think about new kinds of robots for him to learn how to drive. The tensegrity robot is in an early stage of development and must pass through phases of having the robots actually locomote, be packed and be deployed on a mission. When they reach a point where they are starting to think seriously about how to accomplish missions, Norris says that we better believe he will be very excited about trying to help them control the robot and interact both with it and the environment it is exploring!
I asked Norris what he would say to those who are skeptical about the great promise of robotic technology. He says that humans are marvelous explorers. He recalls that we have a great history of humans of exploring, of just being drawn to unknown situations. He would call attention to the amazing ability that humans have, to rapidly understand environments just by being in them. He likens this human ability to our experience of turning on a light in a dark room, and orienting quickly to the size and configuration of that physical space:
When we think about exploring other places, part of the reason for that is because of our natural abilities. The challenge of exploring other environments, distant environments, is that we have to think about the environments that are not safe, the radiation in the environment and the distances make them not appropriate places for humans to go right now. When we think about sending a robot there, if we want those humans to be as effective as an explorer in that distance, in that environment as they are here on Earth, then we have to find a way to engage all those natural abilities that humans are endowed with, as effectively in this task as if they were exploring a canyon in Arizona. The way we do that is, I believe, building interfaces that connect the features of the robot and the abilities of the robot to a human in a way that is so natural that the humans’ natural abilities work in their advantage and not against them.
If we look at unimaginative human-robotic interfaces, just having someone stare at pictures on a screen and use a general-purpose interface like a mouse and keyboard to try and control it, Norris contends that those interfaces are not designed to engage the natural abilities of a human as effectively as interfaces that use virtual reality or body tracking or other kinds of interfaces. What’s happening to that person when they are using those more traditional interfaces, Norris concludes, is that they are having to constantly convert from the abstract that they are seeing on the screen, or the abstract input that they are accomplishing through a keyboard or a mouse into what really is happening on the other side.
We are trying to remove that abstraction. It’s not that we’re trying to fool them into thinking that they’re there, that’s not the part. But just to let their natural abilities operate as if they were there. That’s what it’s about. I see this as this is the way that we make our robotic assets something that can allow us to naturally explore space and distance environments that we’re visiting as naturally as we explore the places we explore on Earth.
It’s relevant to remind ourselves of NASA’s continuous commitment to cutting-edge technologies for robotic space exploration. The list includes Robonaut 2, the humanoid robot with “dexterous manipulation,” the ability to use one’s hand to do work with a dexterity superior to a suited astronaut’s, NASA and CSA’s Dextre, the ISS robotic handyperson that refuels satellites on the exterior of the ISS and RASSOR (Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot), the robotic moon miner that autonomously drives around the Moon. It can scoop and haul up to 40 pounds of moon regolith to a processing plant on a larger lander (that, in turn) extracts water, hydrogen, and oxygen from the moon.
NASA’s Super Ball Bots are deployable robots that bounce on the planetary surface, deform and roll to any location during surface exploration missions. NASA’s second-gen Centaur 2 Rover (integrated with the Robonaut R2A torso) has robotic mobility and the world’s most advanced dexterous “mobile manipulation” system of hybrid rover/arm manipulation. R2's climbing legs were tested in December for movement on the ISS (future features included prospecting sensors, deeper excavation implements and devices for converting planetary raw materials into useable products).
NASA’s car-sized Curiosity Rover robot just did a 329-foot/100.3-meter backward drive over Martian terrain.
The series of nine images in the animation were taken by the rear Hazard-Avoidance Camera (rear Hazcam) on the rover as it drove over a dune spanning the “Dingo Gap” area. Curiosity has driven 937 feet (285.5 meters) on the Martian surface since the rover’s Feb. 9 dune-crossing, for a total odometry of 3.24 miles (5.21 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing.
There is a great movement of researchers all over the world who are working to realize the dream of operating robots with “telepresence” — to lead the future exploration of space. Norris speaks of “telexploration” in a 2013 Von Karman lecture. Making low-cost holodecks for every NASA scientist to see, hear and touch other, distant worlds. And for all of us who want to explore the Great Expanse.
We will be accompanied by robotic explorers, guided by human operators (via teleoperation) and will be freely immersed in distant planetary environments — robotic explorers that are remote-controlled with something like Norris’s human-machine interface. Human researchers will perceive the colors, light, sound and touch (with interactive haptic technology) of planets that are light-years away, acting naturally in them as if they were physically present.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?”
This seems to be the modus operandi of NASA’s new business, bent on using advanced technologies that help humans scale up to the future challenges of deep space exploration. Of an agency that, by default, researches, creates, tests, deploys and quality checks technologies for their future potential — seeking to make real what was once a figment in our cultural imagination.
I am looking forward to this cooperative, human-robot future. A new Apollo moment, of human explorers fulfilling the great technological promise on the Mars surface. Where NASA astronauts might brush the rust-colored regolith off their boots, and in the dim sunlight of the early morning mist, join their colleagues, the vanguard of NASA robotic explorers, standing on a red, sand-covered rocky mound. The astronauts approach their robotic avatar colleagues and say, “Do you see my friends — we are still dreaming of tomorrow!”