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Virtual Reality Case Study with METECS

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Puget Systems & METECS VR Computing Solution at NASA's JSC

About METECS:

METECS is an automation, simulation, and software company headquartered in Houston Texas near NASA's Johnson Space Center. They are a small business with approximately 25 employees with expertise in the areas of simulation, 3D graphics, multibody dynamics, contact dynamics, robotics, software, and automation. METECS has participated in many simulation and graphics projects at Johnson Space Center over the years. Furthermore, the tools that they develop and maintain are used in many of the training and analysis simulation projects that are used at JSC.

Overview of Project:

METECS was asked to provide a virtual reality (VR) solution at Johnson Space Center for the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) facility.

HERA is a unique, modular, three-story habitat that was designed and created through a series of university competitions and was previously used in the Desert Research and Technology Studies in the Arizona desert.

It provides for a simulated long duration spaceflight where participants are isolated in a mission for between 30-60 days. It serves as an analog for simulation of isolation, confinement, and remote conditions of mission exploration scenarios.

HERA studies include behavioral health and performance assessments, communication and autonomy studies, human factors evaluations, and exploration medical capabilities assessments and operations.

It was requested that METECS provide a VR solution which would allow the crew to go into the airlock and simulate EVA operations, mainly using a simulated jet pack which would allow them to fly around and inspect worksites such as an asteroid or the simulated space vehicle.

Challenges:

Some challenges that the METECS team needed to overcome included:

  • Providing image generator PCs that could maintain frame rates above 75 Hz for compatibility with the VR headsets.
  • Building a solution using Linux and being compatible with the existing Linux based simulations and workstations being used in HERA.
  • Utilizing and integrating a tracking solution to allow for tracking of the crewmember's hands during an EVA.

Puget Systems Solutions:

In order to meet all of the requirements for this project, Puget Systems designed two systems - one for the VR image generation and one for the tracking of the crewmember's hands.

Puget Systems Serenity Pro

In order to produce the high framerates needed for the HERA VR headsets, the system needed a strong NVIDIA-based GPU and a CPU with a high CPU clock speed. In addition, since the VR headsets have a fixed length cable to the image generator (IG) workstation, the workstation itself could not be too far from the crewmembers. This made noise isolation a concern.

In order to provide both performance and low noise, METECS used a system from the Puget Systems Serenity line of PCs. Not only does this line offer extremely low noise levels, but they were also able to use a high-end Intel Core i7 6700K CPU operating at 4GHz as well as an NVIDIA GTX 980 video card.

Puget Systems Echo Pro

A second workstation was required to run a tracking software, from Optitrack, to track the crewmember's hands. A compact system with future expandability was desired. For this, a Puget Echo Pro solution was used as it allowed for space saving as well as the ability to upgrade the machine in the future with a full size video card.

In addition to the hardware, Puget Systems allows customers to order PCs with Linux preinstalled (or without an OS) which allowed METECS to both save money for the project. Both of these IG workstations ultimately had Xubuntu 14.04.3 installed on them for the project, so a Windows OS was not needed.

Why METECS chose Puget Systems:

  • Puget Systems has provided good customer service on systems for METECS and NASA JSC in the past.
  • The commitment to low noise PCs was a significant advantage for the enclosed VR space the crewmembers were using.
  • The ability to customize workstations with Linux rather than Windows allowed for some cost savings.
  • Puget Systems' commitment to the continuous process of keeping data failure records on components and only offering those that have good service records inspires confidence in the parts and brands being offered on the website.