Earthlight Wants To Send You To Space

But it's not space like you've experienced in any other game. It's space as the astronauts on the ISS are experiencing right now. Opaque Media is a small Melbourne game developer that has just come back from a week-long visit to NASA. The trip was just one part of a mission to make the first VR game that will truly depict what it's like to live and work on the ISS.

2016 is the year of VR. Everyone is dipping a toe in it, consumer headsets and systems are finally coming to the market (though in some cases not as fast as we'd like) and game devs are jumping on it. Experimentations in the genre have been numerous and interesting, but the space game seems to linger at the core of the VR experience.

At both E3 2015 and CES 2016, Oculus's newest technologies were demoed with a game called EVE Valkyrie. It was a first-person dogfighting experience, set in the huge sci-fi world of EVE Online, and the demo debuted to praise from all corners. It was, potentially, one of the first VR demos that felt like it could be a real, playable game.

Since then, other VR space games like Adrift have been released, with many more planned on the horizon. Earthlight is just one of many games that uses the freedom of microgravity to get around the inherent limitations of moving around in a VR game -- but it's a space game with a difference.

Around the time when most of us were enjoying the Easter long weekend this year, the team from Opaque were over in Houston, visiting NASA's Johnson Space Center. They went to watch, learn and -- most of all -- ask questions. Now, as Opaque settles into the process of sorting through the wealth of resources gained from their visit, we caught up with Earthlight project lead Norman Wang to learn about astronaut training, life on the ISS and how the game itself is shaping up.

Earthlight devs inside NASA's cupola simulator

We first got our hands on Earthlight at PAX Australia last year, where the brief but highly inspiring demo was some of most convincing evidence that VR gaming is actually here to stay. Since that demo, the gameplay itself doesn't seem to have changed much, but the Opaque team has been busy filling out the details of the world that will make Earthlight more than just simple fiction.

Some of these details aren't fiction at all -- the little insights gleaned from NASA that tell the true story of being an astronaut -- while others are touches of fantasy, chief among them the fabricated character that the player takes charge of.


How Do Astronauts Talk?

The last time I covered Earthlight I was incredibly excited to learn that the main character was a female Australian astronaut, and Norman has since revealed that that was largely because she was the voice actor who was available at the time. Since the PAX demo, however, the team made the decision to consciously develop the main character as an Australian.

"She may have to come from NASA, because we don't have a space program," Norman qualifies, "but she will be Australian -- culturally Australian." How that Australianness will translate to conversations, banter and building relationships on board the ISS still has yet to be seen, but the on-board dynamics are one of the things that Opaque has run past NASA extensively. For example -- Norman wanted to find out at what point astronauts on the ISS would start referring to each other by their first names.

"For us, Earthlight wasn't just about sending people into space, it was about creating that authentic experience of being an astronaut -- going through astronaut training and being talked to like an astronaut."
The flight director's desk in the active MCC

As it turns out, the dialogue is more important than you'd think. One of the things Norman most wanted to find out from the people who work at NASA was the one thing that they would most like people to experience in Earthlight. The answer was simple -- they just wanted the writers to get the vernacular right. Apparently most fiction does fairly well with the hard science, but the professional vernacular used at NASA and on the ISS is almost always wrong.

While documentation and written records chronicling said lingo do exist, Norman says that some of the most important resources they managed to collect were in fact audio recordings of real conversations. One such recording was made during Opaque's day at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab -- a huge indoor pool intended to train astronauts to operate in microgravity -- when the team was lucky enough to watch a pair of astronauts get suited up and lowered into the pool.

The training at the NBL was conducted just as a spacewalk would be on the ISS -- spacewalks are always done in pairs, as Norman learned from NASA, with each pair consisting of a lead who is referred to as 'EV1', and the second who is called 'EV2'. Depending on how casual or professional a certain interaction may be, the astronauts may be referred to by their 'EV' codes, or by their actual names. Even with these clear parameters, the shifts in tone can be quite complex, and it is this nuance that the Earthlight team seeks to capture.

One of the other most important elements that Opaque has been looking at are the suits that the astronauts will wear. In the timeline of Earthlight, our astronaut will be travelling into space in 2019 -- only a few years from now, but practically a lifetime in terms of tech redundancy. In fact, by the time 2019 rolls around, NASA plans to have their astronauts using an entirely different type of spacesuit -- the culmination of the Z series suits.

This hard shell in NASA's suit design lab is the base of the Mark III suit, while the current Z-2 suit in development has a hard upper torso piece.

Because the suit is the main asset that will appear in Earthlight that doesn't yet exist in the real world, the developers have to have a real understanding of where the suit is right now, and where it's going.

For example, the Z-2 suit is a rear-entry suit, meaning astronauts step into it through a hatch in the back. In contrast, the EMU suit currently used by U.S. astronauts on the ISS is split in half at the waist -- the difference, Norman says, is that the rear entry makes it much easier for an astronaut to get into the suit without any outside assistance.


What Does A Spacewalk Feel Like, What Does It Sound Like?

Opaque's dev team inspecting the EMU suit used by US astronauts

The suit also leads to an interesting design point that the Earthlight crew were excited to talk about -- and something that is perhaps a little-known aspect of life in space. Because the suits are pressurised, Norman uses the analogy of being inside a giant basketball. Although spacewalks require a lot of grabbing -- of, say handholds and tools -- the astronauts can't actually feel anything through their pressurised 'basketball' suits. They end up gripping things very hard, and causing a lot of trauma to their fingertips.

As a result, spacewalks tend to lead to something called fingernail delamination -- astronauts' fingernails lifting from their nail beds as a result of their EVA suits. In a first person game where the most the player sees of the character is her fingernails, this kind of detail goes a long way towards telling a story.

"When the only thing you see when you look down is your hand, how much of a person's personality can you communicate through that?"

With the highly successful Earthlight demo's beautiful spacewalk, it's no wonder that EVAs will potentially make up a number of important points in this astronaut's journey. While visiting NASA, the Opaque team got to sit down with veteran astronaut Thomas Marshburn -- a man who has logged over 24 hours of EVAs during his time in space, having participated in the Space Shuttle Program and spent time on the ISS.

When asked what the most memorable experience of his time in space was, Marshburn gave a beautiful moment of insight on what the first moments of a spacewalk are like. While waiting in the airlock, he recalls, the EVA tools attached to your suit jingle around like chimes. The airlock opens, and as all the air is sucked out into space the chiming sound goes with it, leaving you in complete silence in the vacuum of space. It’s a moment of vulnerability, of knowing that there's nothing between you and the endless, airless emptiness but your suit and its life support.

This moment is not one that Earthlight's team could miss, with Norman saying that he hopes to capture the ritual of preparation for that moment when the character undertakes her first spacewalk.


Video Game Developers Can Help NASA Too

As NASA is currently in the extended process of sending humans to Mars, you might wonder if its employees have the time to be showing game developers around -- but NASA is gaining more from this partnership than you would expect.

"Most of all, we want to make sure it's a true collaboration, that as much as we're learning from NASA we can also feed back to them."

In fact, Opaque is currently in the process of creating what's called a Space Act Agreement with NASA. A Space Act is a kind of partnership that allows outside companies to contribute to NASA, while getting their own benefit from it in return. As far as the team from Opaque can tell, it's the first Australian company to go through the process of creating a Space Act with NASA -- in fact, it's possibly the first Australian company to work this closely with NASA on anything.

But what could a video game developer offer NASA that might "further [NASA's] goals for aeronautics research and space exploration"? There's more to it than you might think.

Take the suits -- prototyping a space suit is expensive. Yet the team behind Earthlight has a full VR environment made and ready to go, able to virtually test suit functions in a way that is far cheaper and easier than real life prototyping.

Part of the research done by the Earthlight team at NASA's suit lab included looking at design features that were either implausible to test or planned for a future date. Things like augmented reality displays in suit helmets, or LED strips that visually display the health and status of the suit.

Norman stresses that they aren't just creating fantasy with the suit designs, however. The Earthlight team is only interested in functions that might be plausible in real life -- if not exactly possible yet.

The Earthlight team talking to people from NASA's Advanced Suit Lab

The best thing about this constant testing and trialling in VR is that Opaque is developing what is essentially a prototype for NASA's future suits. This is why the creation of the Space Act between Opaque and NASA is so important -- so the Earthlight team can send these assets back to NASA and be a part of the design process for the suits.

"We want to make sure it's a collaboration," Norman stresses once again. "We'll be testing these functions in VR and constantly feeding back to NASA." In a way, the folks at NASA are the ultimate beta testers for Earthlight -- it gets its hands on what Opaque is building before anyone else, so the feedback can work both ways.

NASA has its own VR programs, in fact, which use a custom headset crafted from double Oculus DK2 screens, providing one screen per eye for improved field of view. This shot from NASA's VR lab shows those headsets being used in conjunction with a machine called Charlotte, used to simulate moving large objects in microgravity.

Recently, NASA has even been experimenting with another one of Earthlight's release platforms -- the PlayStation VR. The program combines PlayStation's VR system with the ISS's Robonaut 2, using the VR controls as a way to potentially control robot arms in space -- though it's all still pure simulation at the current time. But when you think about it, this is a very similar system to what Opaque is building in Earthlight -- and Norman hopes that Opaque can help further this technology.


Keeping Up With The Technology

If you're anything like me, you're probably wondering when you can get your hands on Earthlight. The good news is that it'll hopefully be sometime this year, though the bad news is that you won't be getting it all at once.

Earthlight is a game that will be released episodically -- and while that seems to be the trendy way to do games these days, Opaque has a very good reason for doing so: tech redundancy. That problem is twofold with a game like this -- if the team settled in for an extended development period, they would run the risk of both the technology depicted in game and the technology used to run the game becoming redundant before it released.

Earthlight was demoed on an earlier version of the HTC Vive at PAX Australia 2015

"Before CES this year, even the developers didn't know about the HTC Vive's camera," was Norman's example -- an important thing to consider for the Earthlight team, who are developing primarily on the Vive. He also mentions the difference between the Oculus Rift's DK2 and the consumer version on the market now -- they might as well be different machines altogether.

"When technology is released it's already obsolete, because they're already building the next version."

The same goes for the technology used in the game -- though Opaque has given themselves a small window to combat redundancy, with the first episode to be set in 2019. The episodic format gives them time to allow for new technology and discoveries that may change the experience of an astronaut on the ISS.

"We'll do a lot of system building up front, and then focus on content in the later stages," Norman says. Each episode will have its own pre-production period -- and each of these will involve a dialogue with NASA, determining the viability of the story that Opaque's design team has planned for that arc.

Norman also revealed that Opaque plans to release an Episode 0 of Earthlight through Steam's Early Access, and potentially on PlayStation's equivalent as well. The way he phrases it, it's only fair -- with VR gaming creating such a new and unique gaming experience, how can you expect people to pay for a full game when they don't really know what they're getting?

While Earthlight's Episode 1 will be all about becoming an astronaut, Episode 0 -- the Early Access content -- will be about training to be an astronaut. Much of Opaque's research at NASA Johnston had to do with the training process that astronauts go through, and Norman says that most people would be surprised at how exciting the training actually is.

While it sounds like a stretch to sell a space game without actually sending players to space in the first episode, Norman promises that he has solutions in mind for that problem. The main aim of the Early Access episode is to get people used to the VR experience, he says.

Opaque aims to enter Early Access in Q3 this year on Steam, with PlayStation potentially to follow. Episode 1 is scheduled to arrive later this year on the HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift.

"I don't know a single person who doesn't want to go to space," Norman says -- and with Earthlight shaping up to be the most accurate space game ever, it's not hard to imagine there'll be plenty of people -- both gamers and space enthusiasts -- lining up for their very own astronaut experience.

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