Boeing DigitalSpace Raytheon SimStation (NASA Ames)
K. Foley B. Damer T. Cochrane
NASA Ames Research CenterVisOpps NASA Ames Research Center SimStation American Museum of Natural History, Rose Center Planetarium
M. Sims L. Edwards et al M. Shirley C. Emmart

Title: Drive On Mars VisOpps, and the concept of a Multi-User Online Reality Simulation for Public Outreach

Since 2001 the medium of massively multi-user online game (MMOG) and simulation environments have been growing at an exponential rate (see figure 1 below). With the launch of America’s Army, a reality simulation-based MMOG [1] a federal agency (the DOD) has utilized this new medium to interest a wide public (over 3.5 million players) in the Army, with a resulting improvement in image and recruitment. The submitters of this white paper believe that the use of the MMOG medium to create engaging, reality-simulation environments of current and future space exploration is the best way to educate and sustain public interest in the Exploration Office’s initiatives. As an early experiment to validate this concept, a team at DigitalSpace and NASA Ames created a web-based multi user 3D simulation game called “Drive On Mars” [2]. We believe that this has provided an important proof-of-concept for a wider initiative “Space Exploration Online” which could bring a MMOG environment on the wider space exploration initiatives to a wide US and worldwide public.
Background and Relevance to New Exploration Mission
Prior to the dual Mars Exploration Rover (MER) landings in January of 2004, M. Sims of NASA Ames Research Center established the VisOpps (Visualization Opportunities) working group consisting of MER team members from several NASA centers, and representatives from industry and academia. The purpose of this voluntary effort was to experiment with 3D visualizations from the MER pancam and other instruments to produce a forward-looking view of future tools that might be used in rover and other surface missions to Mars and elsewhere. A secondary goal was to produce innovative public outreach environments that would employ real mission data, notably 3D terrain with textures. DigitalSpace produced the first of a series of dynamic 3D environments depicting simplified MER surface operations beginning in 2002 and launched a public site “” simultaneously with the MER landings in January 2004. The DriveOnMars site and environments can be visited at [2] below and its web interface is pictured in figure 2.
DriveOnMars employed, for the first time in a light-weight web-based 3D platform, a model of a rover that employed dynamics and behavior derived from a real rover engaged in surface operations. In addition, a physics simulator, derived from industry standard game engines, was employed to emulate Mars gravity and surface dynamics as the rover is animated by users in the synthetic environment. Lighting emulating sun rise and set in a 24 hour 39 minute Mars “sol” cycle was also simulated.
Experience with DriveOnMars in the use of mission data is currently in development. 3D Terrain data derived from the Opportunity Rover’s Pancam was delivered to VisOpps team members in February 2004 and is being processed to reduce polygon budget and publish it in a viable format for internet distribution. Experience with DriveOnMars as an education/outreach tool has been extensive with several thousand users entering and operating the public version of the environment and its use in schools, planetaria and as installations at space-oriented conferences such as CONTACT at Ames in March 2004 (see figure 3 below).

Carrying this experience forward to the President’s 2004 vision of Moon-Mars exploration, we believe that DriveOnMars represents an important proof of concept that a linkage can be created between mission science teams, mission data and the web-delivery of compelling 3D content that can engage and excite the public in current and future space programs. It is also suggested from this experience that robotic missions may be able to employ real-time 3D representations to present mission controllers with the true state of the spacecraft and its environs and allow traverse and target selection, as was done with 3D models for Mars Pathfinder in 1997.

At a workshop sponsored by Boeing in April 2004, some of the members of the team submitting this white paper presented the possibility that a large scale, massive, multi-player (MMOG) simulation could be developed for the wider Internet public which would feature elements of the current and future space program. It was felt that the highly successful online “reality simulation” game called America’s Army [1] developed by the Department of Defense, was an important proof of concept that a similar environment could introduce a whole new generation to new possibilities for space exploration as outlined in the President’s vision. DriveOnMars was cited as an important example of a reality-based web-delivered learning space in this workshop. Boeing and the team that presented this proposal will be continuing to develop the opportunity and involve a wider range of participants.
Proposed Follow-on Program of Research and Development It is proposed that DriveOnMars and projects engaged by Boeing and others to develop the concept of a space-oriented MMOG “Space Exploration Online” be explored further. We also recommend that tools, content and other benefits flowing from this effort be made available in a license-free, open source form to both NASA and the general commercial and academic community surrounding the new exploration mission.
[1] America’s Army can be experienced online at:
[2] DigitalSpace project pages and publications including DriveOnMars are available on the Web at: and respectively.
Supporting Images: DriveOnMars VisOpps and MMOG growth (2002-2004)

Figure 1: Active subscription growth in MMOG, source: 3D Gaming Magazine

Figure 2: DriveOnMars VisOpps project showing virtual MER vehicle driven in real-time within a web interface.
Figure 3: DriveOnMars being used by a young space enthusiast at the CONTACT Conference at NASA Ames, March 2004.