Collaborate in outer space by leveraging mobile virtual reality.
The NASA Jet Propulsion Lab brings together many scientists and engineers to explore space. As admirable as this goal is, there are a lot of problems they need to overcome to work together.
The initial problem that my group was presented with:How might we improve collaboration between engineers and scientists?
- Terrie Chan
- Eugene Meng
- Brian Orlando
- Edward Roberts (me!)
- 7 Months
- NASA Jet Propulsion Lab
A lot of the data NASA collects is 3D by nature. Furthermore, mission planners understand data through its environmental context. An intuitive, accessible way to portray 3D data is through mobile virtual reality. This way, mission planners can finally collect feedback across distances.
See the orientation and bearing of the orbiter in relation to Europa, Earth, or the Sun.
Past & Future States
In the Schedule Zone, mission planners can see when instruments are operating, and how.
See Europa from the point of view of the orbiter.
The goal of our project appeared from the start to be to offer new and innovative ideas to JPL. By leveraging a design thinking approach, we were able to deliver exactly that, as well as reveal aspects of JPL to its personnel they hadn't even been totally aware of.
In light of our efforts, our work grew into a funded project at the JPL that could have impact on the Europa mission, and potentially other missions as well.
Our Design Approach
From the start, our project was entirely about applying the Design process. Each step in that approach can be seen below.
We set out our generative research to uncover pain points, collaborative processes, and information hierarchies at NASA.
We wanted to know what was important, how people collaborated over what was important, and what was blocking them from doing so.
A challenge here was in recruiting. We were in Seattle, and almost all of our participants were in other parts of the country.
I helped my team recruit participants by leveraging our mentors’ contacts within NASA, but also by asking participants if there was anyone they thought we should talk to as well.
In the course of interviewing, I interviewed 4 people, along with an expert as well.
I distinctly remember that particular expert interview being so full of jargon it was like listening to someone speak another language. It was difficult at times, to balance asking clarifying questions and asking questions that we needed answers to.
After all the user sessions, I had a heavy hand in helping my team conduct a huge affinity diagramming exercise to identify themes and guiding principles for our design work.
Guiding Design Principles
From the user research done and generative artifacts created, I also helped my group synthesize the following design principles that would provide large guardrails for our project.
We must not only embrace NASA’s drive to push the envelope of what’s possible, but we must also prove the utility and robustness of our design through extensive testing and simulation.
Acknowledge political motivations and tensions in an effort to improve collaboration between mission stakeholders.
Make system actions and activities clearly visible among all teams to instill trust and empathy.
Be cognizant of the limited time in the mission and take quick, time-sensitive, face-to-face interactions into account.
Recognize the emotional valence of these types of missions in order to help users perform the right tasks in the right contexts.
Provide redundant data in all appropriate contexts, but only when necessary.
Accommodate the expected uncertainty of orbiter missions and a constantly changing mission plan, schedule and timeline.
Only employ 3D immersive environments when necessary. They can be amazing, but can also detract from productivity.
After creating design principles though, we took our remaining data, and what we learned from the affinity diagram to create further visualizations of what we learned. These visualizations helps us to identify user needs, and pain points for us to target.
Need for time sensitive tools
- The Europa mission will have 10 years of initial planning
- There will be 45 "flybys" (the satellite flying by Europa)
- Each flyby will only last 8 hours each
Need for social translusence
- There are many different stakeholder groups on the Europa mission
- Collaboration is made more difficult in that they are spread out across the country
- On top of that, some groups of conflicting personal agendas
Need for a unified visualization
- Data is downloaded and then manipulated by many people to inform decisions
- The tools people manipulate the data with are frequently inappropriate for that data
- This pain point is compounded by the need to use them to collaborate with others
Pushing my group through several cycles of divergence and convergence, we arrived at the final idea we would pursue: an immersive timeline visualization tool.
Primary users are Mission Planners.
The platform is the Google Daydream.
The VR Timeline tool allows people to contact someone else in another city to clear up confusion. They can join a VR chat using their phones to visualize information virtually.
We were focusing on mission planners and their needs. Yet, they would also be talking to scientists, who had needs as well. To see if our concept served both groups well, I created two concept videos out of storyboards my teammates made for our participants to watch and critique.
We realized we were not prepared to show scientific information in a trustworthy way. In response, we pivoted to focus only on mission planners.
The first task after confirming our design direction was formulate an information architecture. Of note:
- Users would be constrained to the Europa orbital environment
- 5 different information zones could be accessed depending on specific needs
- Past and future states of the mission can be seen
Focusing on the initial stage of the experience, users would start their VR session through their mobile phone, initiating 1 of 3 different sessions:
- Immediate 2 person session
- Schedule a 2 person session for the future
- Jump into a private session
To test the concept we came up with, I developed a small functional prototype for us to work with.
There were two aspects of the prototype we wanted to test for: visual comfort, and asset placement. The feedback that we got from participants showed us that we would not need to change visuals at all. However, improving readability was necessary. Secondly, we found that we should place assets at least 2 meters away from the user.
There is still much to design in this project. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to do everything that we wanted to do. If we had more time:
There were so many aspects of this project that we needed to define, it became overwhelming. Defining more about asset placement within the virtual space would have been great to do.
Secondly, we did not have the skills to develop the headset prototype much further than we got it to. It would have been great to find an experienced VR developer to help us push the boundaries even more.
Lastly, by the end, we had run out of time to conduct much more usability testing with the final prototypes. Taking more time to collect feedback would have been invaluable.