Take a Field Trip to Mars

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Move over, Ms. Frizzle. There’s a new magic school bus in town.

School children can now take a field trip to the surface of mars. Thanks to the combined technologies of virtual reality and internal combustion, the simulated environment provides a valuable new learning experience that’s both fun and educational.

Elementary school students in Washington DC boarded an ordinary looking school bus, not expecting their trip to bring them off the planet. But as the bus began to move, windows that normally revealed the DC metro area suddenly transformed into a virtual Mars landscape. And it wasn’t only the eyes that were engaged. When the bus hit 30 miles an hour, so too did the martian surface. When the bus turned, the change was reflected on the surface as well. These kids were in a one-of-a-kind group virtual reality environment.

The tour of Mars takes you over the Martian terrain, allows you to see the martian rover, swings by a hypothetical martian research base, and even drives through a sandstorm before returning you to earth.

The trip was developed by Lockheed Martin, an aerospace company, and McCann New York, an advertising agency. They worked in tandem with Framestore, a special effects house that has previously worked on the film “Gravity.” The martian landscape runs on Unreal Engine, a game engine that has been used in video games like Bioshock and Mass Effect.

To create an authentic virtual experience, the designers outfitted a normal school bus with special windows that could turn from ordinary windows into hd monitors, complete with touchscreen capabilities, hand-built in Asia. A sound system is also part of the experience to better simulate a Mars excursion.

To make it a truly authentic experience, the development team had to figure out how to synchronize the movement of the physical bus with the virtual environment being projected on the screens. The team mapped out 250 square miles of Washington DC to overlay the Mars environment on. The bus is also set up with an accelerometer, velocimeter, and magnetometer in order to help translate speed, turns, and bumps into the simulation realistically. Like a virtual reality helmet, the bus is able to track gyroscopic movement.

Lockheed Martin, which is also involved in designing both spacecraft and habitats for future expeditions to the red planet, hopes that the virtual reality trip will inspire the first generation of Mars visitors. This hope is unsurprising, as travel to Mars is something that NASA has been working on for the past few years. On August 28th, an experiment was concluded where six would-be astronauts lived with each other, isolated from the rest of the world in an artificial habitat. The results of the experiment were generally positive, and makes martian habitation seem more likely.

Though the experimental vehicle was outfitted with Washington DC in mind, the school bus has made trips to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and plans are being made for it to tour across the country.