Clouds? Where we're going, we won't see clouds!
Edinburgh astronomers have combined the new Oculus Rift virtual reality headset with Stellarium planetarium software to produce an exciting and immersive way to explore the sky. The system was demonstrated live today (7 July) at the National Astronomy Meeting at Venue Cymru in Llandudno, Wales, but soon will be available as a shared group experience to anyone who has a headset and an Internet connection. The technology offers the chance to engage new audiences with the night sky.
Alastair Bruce, the leader of the project, provisionally named StarSightVR, “but now I can guarantee perfect cloudless skies, and show the universe to people all round the world, while they stay in the comfort of their own homes.""I have always loved showing the stars to people" said astronomer
‘Some people are also simply unable to come to places like the Royal Observatory or to travel to dark skies, so this technology could help them enjoy astronomy in a way that until now wasn’t possible.”
The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset has created a huge stir. Thousands of people are testing out the prototype, Facebook have already bought the company, and the headsets should go on sale early in 2016. The buzz so far has mostly been about what it will do for three dimensional immersive gaming, but Bruce, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and a keen gamer himself, saw the potential for public interest in astronomy. "I decided the way ahead was to combine the headset with Stellarium, because that software is very popular as well as really good, and what’s more it’s open source, which means we could get the benefit to the maximum number of people."
Alastair got together with his supervisor, Prof Andy Lawrence, and they applied for a small grant from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which allowed them to buy test equipment, and pay for a software engineer (Guillaume Chereau) to make the necessary changes to the Stellarium software.
"It worked beautifully" said Andy Lawrence. "We showed off an early version to people at the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April, and it just knocked their socks off. You feel like you are really outside looking at the starry sky, but it’s even better. You can see fainter stars, speed up the rotation of Earth, look at deep sky objects, and even take the ground away so you feel like you are seeing the stars from space."
The team will very soon release their new best test open source variety of Stellarium. This means that anybody with an Oculus Rift headset will be able to download the new software and try it out for themselves. But the team see this as just the start. "We have a clear idea of the next steps in development - the things we want to add or make better before an official release - but unfortunately we have now run out of money", said Lawrence.
As well as releasing the new software, and adding features to the code, what Bruce and Lawrence want to do next is to use the system to run presenter-led group stargazing sessions live over the Internet. "We love showing people the stars and explaining what they are looking at, here on the rooftop at the Royal Observatory", said Bruce, "so we thought, why not use the Oculus Rift to do that remotely?"
The team built changes into Stellarium so that their central version could act as a master, sending information to remote versions. The idea is that each user switches their copy of Stellarium to ‘join show’ mode, and listens to the astronomer-presenter over an audio link, while the presenter points where they need to look, adjusts day/night settings, switches constellation guiding lines on and off, and so on.
"Ideally we would run a StarSightVR show perhaps once a month", said Lawrence, "but we don't know yet how popular it would be, or how well it will scale up. Our plan is to run a trial event or two and see how we go.”
Tania Johnston, STFC Public Engagement manager at the observatory, added: "The new StarSightVR system has enormous potential. STFC is committed to diversity and inclusion, but I often deal with people who have conditions that limit their involvement with our work. So giving them access to such an incredible virtual reality astronomy experience - over the internet - could overcome some of those most fundamental barriers.
The trial shows will be run through the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Trust, a charitable organisation that supports heritage and public interest in astronomy.
Images and captions
John Timlin using the prototype Starsight software on the Oculus Rift headset. Credit: Jason Cowan, UK ATC
Chelsea MacLeod, Edinburgh astronomer, using the prototype Starsight software on on Oculus Rift headset. Credit: Jason Cowan, UK ATC
An image of the sky above Edinburgh made using Stellarium planetarium software. Users of the new headset will see a similar image, but will be totally immersed in the view. Credit: A. Lawrence
Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Ms Anita Heward
Dr Sam Lindsay
Ms Tracy Peet
Ms Catriona Kelly
Mr Jake Gilmore
Mr Alastair Bruce
Prof Andy Lawrence
Ms Tania Johnston
Mr Guillaume Chereau
Notes for editors
The Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2015) will take place in Venue Cymru, Llandudno, Wales, from 5-9 July. NAM 2015 will be held in conjunction with the annual meetings of the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar-Terrestrial physics (MIST) groups. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Follow the conference on Twitter
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3800 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others. Follow the RAS on Twitter
The Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE) is a historic site which combines three organisations - the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), an establishment of the Science and Technologies Facilities Council; the Institute for Astronomy (IfA), which is part of the University of Edinburgh (www.ed.ac.uk); and the ROE Visitor Centre, which is run by the ATC, but co-ordinates the outreach work of both UK ATC and IfA. The ROE is unique in combining on a single site astronomical research, forefront technology, teaching, public outreach, and a rich historical heritage.
The ROE Trust is a registered charity which acts to protect and showcase the heritage of the ROE, and to develop projects connected with public interest in Astronomy.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar. It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities for example in the area of astronomy, the European Southern Observatory. Follow STFC on Twitter