Yesterday, NASA JPL released Spacecraft 3D, an augmented reality application for the iPhone and iPad that allows you to create a 3D version of either Curiosity, the Mars rover current en-route to the Red Planet, or the GRAIL spacecraft, currently orbiting the moon. Although it may sound simple, the technology behind making the models appear on your device is actually fairly advanced. It works like this:

  1. You print out a special PDF (the app will email it to you) that has a particular pattern printed on it. This pattern allows your device to align and orient itself and figure out how to position the model.
  2. Once your device has a lock on the pattern, sensors inside (such as the accelerometer) along with tracking of the pattern allow your device to move the model in relation to how your device moves, enabling you to pan around and zoom in on the model.

I had a lot of fun playing around with the app at my desk today. Here’s a picture of GRAIL hanging off the side of my wall:

GRAIL Spacecraft on the wall of my office

You can also make the models move and interact – for example, Curiosity will rotate around and extend its robotic arm.

Spacecraft 3D is a great demonstration of augmented reality technology and some of the potentials it has for work at NASA and in the world. Imagine using similar technology to project images on the helmets of astronauts on spacewalks to help them locate and move components. With the increases in computing power that we are seeing today, augmented reality will quickly become feasible for the masses and technologies like Google’s Project Glass will become ubiquitous. Think of the possibilities!

Spacecraft 3D is currently available for iPhone and iPad and will be coming to other platforms soon.

About Sean

Technology Strategist

NASA Headquarters

sean.herron@nasa.gov