Houston, We Have A Solution

Electrical engineering major Alanis Nash '19 watches a NASA staffer test Bradley's augmented reality program. (Photo provided by NASA/Norah Moran)

June 26, 2018

By Matt Hawkins

Bradley game design alumnus David Matias ’18 flashed back to childhood dreams as he toured Johnson Space Center’s astronaut training facilities in Houston. Like many youth, Matias wanted to become astronaut, and here he stood in awe of the environment.

In one building, he walked by the 40-feet-deep pool that houses life-size model segments of the International Space Station on which astronauts practice tasks in simulated weightlessness. In another, he walked through robotics equipment designed for space — a privilege not granted to the general public. Later, he got a sneak peek at NASA’s next-generation Z2 spacesuit that will replace the current 40-year-old design.

Mathias and six other Bradley students won’t experience the real International Space Station, but their innovations could fly to space in the new suits. Through NASA’s S.U.I.T.S. Design Challenge (Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students), students built a model augmented reality (AR) program to help astronauts work in space.

“I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me I’d be going there,” Matias said. “I grew up and realized I’d never be an astronaut, so it was amazing to hear from former astronauts and other NASA staff that worked with us.”

Students from Bradley and 10 other universities worked through the spring semester to develop programs on Microsoft’s HoloLens platform. Students were led by Heather Ford, instructor and designer in Bradley’s interactive media department. Bradley’s team developed an object and voice-activated AR user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) that freed astronauts to complete spacewalk tasks without extra motion in bulky suits. The virtual ground control plugged into an onboard database so astronauts could look up task instructions and monitor vital information.

As an AR program, astronauts could read instructions and see diagrams on the inside of their facemask. If users needed a clear view, Bradley’s personal assistant could speak requested information.

“It’s impressive how natural AR can feel,” said computer science and math double major Jason Daluga ‘19, of Libertyville, Ind. “Our design for simple tasks basically is a flipbook you can use in any field.”

The model went through last-minute adjustments as teams networked with each other. Input from former astronauts serving as faculty advisers helped revise vital features such as the text-to-speech option. In the end, it impressed a NASA staffer who tried it and a panel of NASA and Microsoft executives. Those encouraging words left the team flying high as it returned to Peoria.

“To hear NASA say they needed us, especially as undergraduates, shocked me,” said electrical engineering major Alanis Nash ‘19, of Peoria. “We got real-world experience and they got ideas. I hope our technology ends up in their suits so I can one day say I worked on it.”

Bradley faculty, staff and students have developed a collaborative relationship with NASA in recent years. Partnership started with work on CubeSat satellites for education and research. Additionally, students are working on a satellite-monitoring app MOCSat and a web-based space science game L.U.M.P.I. The university also is the only academic partner and primary host of NAA's ongoing 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, prt of the Centennial Challenges Program.