money for the mission

Houston virtual reality company collaborates with space health organization

Houston-based Z3VR has been granted $500,000 to work or virtual reality applications in space. Photo courtesy of Z3VR

Houston-based startup Z3VR received a $500,000 grant from Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Founded in 2017 by a group of emerging tech enthusiasts, Z3VR discovered its niche in what CEO Josh Ruben calls the "intersection of biosensors and VR" and began consulting with TRISH in 2018. Last year, the company received its first funding from the institution to create virtual reality platforms that promote exercise and provide additional sensory experiences for isolated Mars-bound astronauts.

This new grant, however, takes Z3VR's mission one step farther. The year-long grant will allow Z3VR, in partnership with NASA labs in California and Houston, to further develop their VR platform to use eye movement tracking to identify cognitive, psychiatric, or ophthalmological issues before they arise.

Getting out ahead of issues is more important than ever on the Mission to Mars. Because of the duration and distance of the mission, these astronauts will be uniquely isolated and will face a communication lag of up to 45 minutes between space shuttle and command center.

"What that means from a health care perspective is that pretty much everything you need to treat and diagnose these astronauts needs to be self contained on the spacecraft itself," Ruben says. "The system that we are building is sensitive enough to pick up on these cognitive, ophthalmological, and psychiatric conditions well before they become clinically relevant. It'll be long before the astronaut knows there's a problem. That's the hope."

Known as the Oculometric Cognition Testing and Analysis in Virtual Environments (OCTAVE) approach, Z3VR's program is modeled after a system at the Visuomotor Control Lab at NASA Ames in California. In the lab, scientists can use high-frequency eye trackers to monitor 21 physiological properties that can point to early signs of mental and physical conditions. The goal is to shrink down the same trackers to fit not just on the spacecraft, but inside a VR headset.

Other VR companies have been able to implement eye tracking into their platforms for some time now — but not at this level of preciseness. Partnering engineers on the project will have to increase the image quality four fold and capture about 10 times the number of images per second in order to detect the minute eye movements Ruben and team are searching for.

Still, Ruben thinks VR is the ideal fit for this process. "When you are in a VR application, the developers have what is effectively total control of your entire sensory experience," he says. "If I am monitoring various aspects of your physiology while you're in a VR experience, I know that the way your body is reacting is directly a result of our VR experience."

Too, the team and Z3VR envisions that through their platform this type of cognitive tracking can be a passive process. While astronauts are using the devices to exercise or learn how to fix a problem on board, their program will be tracking their eye movement in the background — much like how your smart watch would track your heart rate — alerting the command center only when a problem arises.

For Ruben, this is their giant leap for mankind moment and how they can use their tool to make an impact for earth-bound individuals.

"We imagine a world where just by interacting with a game through one of these devices we are able to flag these neurological issues well before they are issues," he says.

Though their technology likely won't be put to use in space until the 2030s, the group is already in talks with academic institutions about partnering on their program for new clinical uses and is working with the FDA to bring in regulatory oversight, Ruben says.

"This TRISH funding means the world," he says. "Not only do we have these partnerships within NASA, which we expect will really help address these problems, but we are already taking the funds and putting them to work in the US healthcare system."

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Building Houston

 
 

The ISS houses hundreds of research projects — and the astronauts aboard just got a handful more. Image via NASA.gov

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

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