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This Startup Wants To Put A 360-degree Virtual-Reality Camera On The Space Station

SpaceVR hopes to beam back live, 360-degree video of the Earth, starting next year.

This Startup Wants To Put A 360-degree Virtual-Reality Camera On The Space Station
[Photos: courtesy of SpaceVR]

If a single image of the Earth rising in the dark of space can spawn a national environmental movement, imagine how inspiring a live, 360-degree, 3-D video stream of our planet and the International Space Station could be.

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That’s the theory behind SpaceVR, a San Francisco startup that’s planning to have its virtual-reality camera, known as the Overview One, put into space and mounted on the space station as early as next year. Once it’s up and running, anyone will be able to watch the video online, and those with virtual-reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift, the Gear VR, and Google Cardboard will be able to immerse themselves in the view from space.

“One of our core philosophies is the ‘overview effect,’” says SpaceVR co-founder and CEO Ryan Holmes. “That’s when any human looks at the Earth and it updates their worldview for the rest of their life . . . When the first-ever Earth-rise photo was exposed, [it] led directly to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Without that picture, there would be no EPA. Our long-term goal is to give this experience to a billion people, so that effect happens on a global scale.”

The Twelve-GoPro Solution

To hear Holmes tell it, the current state-of-the-art for movable video outside of the ISS is “a GoPro mounted on an astronaut.”

SpaceVR wants to advance that state-of-the-art.

SpaceVR’s Ryan Holmes

The idea is simple. Holmes and his team are building a special camera that’s essentially six pairs of modified GoPros mounted onto a custom-designed, 3-D-printed core and fitted into the standard “1U” favored by countless small teams aiming to put their scientific projects into space. CubeSats are nanosatellites about four inches wide that weigh about three pounds, and which have a volume of about a quart. They are taken to space as auxiliary payloads on planned launches.

The Overview One features a technology package of integrated control and communications electronics comprised of two octa-core processors for data management and processing, atmospheric sensors, space-certified batteries, a cooling system, and wide-angle lenses.

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Next month, SpaceVR will have its own launch: A $1 million Kickstarter campaign. If successful, that would be on top of $50,000 in seed funding that the startup recently raised. And the 24-year-old Holmes originally bootstrapped the company with $15,000 he scrounged up by selling his car, cobbling together birthday money, and getting an advance on an inheritance from his great-grandmother.

Ambitious But Realistic Aspirations

Don’t think SpaceVR’s plans are the starry-eyed aspirations of so many others who turn to crowdfunding campaigns to finance flights of fancy. Holmes and his team have assembled a stellar team of well-connected advisers and partners who are convinced the Overview One will soon be beaming back live video from the space station.

“We’ve spent the last few weeks working with our colleagues at NASA, and we are comfortable that we can implement, and that NASA can implement” SpaceVR’s project, says new SpaceVR adviser Jeffrey Manber, the managing director of NanoRacks, which operates the only commercial laboratory in outer space and which helps others get their payloads into space.

SpaceVR’s 12-GoPro camera (center)

According to Isaac DeSouza, SpaceVR’s cofounder and CTO, the company has just gotten the green light from NanoRacks to put the Overview One in space this year. At first, it will send back prerecorded video. Eventually, DeSouza says, real-time video streaming should be added. “With Jeff Manber as an adviser,” he says, “we are confident we will be able to navigate the last challenges required to meet all of our objectives.”

Not having final NASA approvals for a project is hardly an impediment to moving forward. As Andrew Rush, the president of Made In Space, which had its 3-D printer installed on the International Space Station, puts it, “it’s not unusual for companies to get pretty far into the development of their product for space without having all the necessary certifications and clearances from NASA.” For example, SpaceX didn’t get its Federal Aviation Administration waivers to launch its first rocket until just a few days before lift-off.

Made In Space is also a SpaceVR partner, having created the 3-D-printed core of the Overview One. It was designed so that replacements can be printed aboard the space station.

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Seeing the Unseen

Rush, too, is excited by the prospect of a live-streaming, 360-degree, virtual-reality camera on board the space station. “We definitely think it’s a really cool use of the format,” Rush says, “and being able to 3-D print the structure that holds their cameras in orbit is a really cool mix of two technologies that have captured the public imagination recently–3-D printing and VR.”

SpaceVR’s 3-D-printed core

Although space junkies have had no shortage of news about and images of the space station, with countless SpaceX launches in recent months, astronauts tweeting, and an existing 2-D live stream from the space station, SpaceVR and its supporters think the Overview One could radically change the public’s perception of space exploration.

“The International Space Station is one of the greatest engineering marvels that humankind has produced,” Manber says, “yet it might as well be in some isolated village outside the information grid, because so few people have been able to experience [its] sheer size and delight.”

Clearly a romantic, Manber notes that Lewis and Clark brought an artist with them on their famous expedition across the Western U.S. to draw the waterfalls, Native Americans, and other things and people they encountered. “They understood that you have to make that emotional connection,” he says, “especially when the public is footing the bill.”

That’s exactly the sentiment SpaceVR is hoping to tap into, and profit from, given the company’s plan to make money with a $10-a-month subscription model for access to the full range of VR video it plans to capture. It will also make some free video available, as well as discounted subscriptions for “less privileged” schools and communities.

When the Overview One is installed on the space station, Holmes says, the public will be able to see outside the window of the ISS’s cupola–an on-board observatory–and spot Earth, incoming spacecraft, the movement of the space station’s solar panels, and even the inflation of a space hotel. “It will just be this crazy, majestic experience that’s unattainable” today, he promises.

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As DeSouza puts it, the view would be like that from the top floor of a building–if the building was 250 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Who else is romantic about the prospects of exciting the public about space? A lunar astronaut, that’s who. “Right now we’re not on a sustainable path, and SpaceVR’s product can be a major part of correcting that,” Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth person to walk on the moon, said in a statement. “Spending less time killing each other and more time focusing on the good we can create: the implications of it are quite powerful.”

There have been just 540 astronauts in history. “That’s not ok, because there’s 7 billion of us,” DeSouza said. “If you [get a million people excited], you have a movement. If you get a billion, you have a revolution.”

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About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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