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HTC’s Vive Focus 3 has a new, far-out mission: astronaut mental health

HTC’s Vive Focus 3 has a new, far-out mission: astronaut mental health


Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen will test a specially configured HTC Vive for up to eight months with the NASA Crew-7 mission.

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A person “sits” cross-legged while floating above the floor of a plane during a parabolic flight.
Testing the HTC Vive Focus 3 during a European Space Agency parabolic flight.
Image: Novespace

HTC is going to space. The company announced today that on a planned November 7th NASA resupply launch, a tweaked, microgravity-friendly version of its Vive Focus 3 VR headset will be sent to the International Space Station. Once it’s there, Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen will test the Focus 3’s viability for helping alleviate the mental stress that NASA says comes from the “lack of privacy, high and variable workloads, and separation from loved ones” inherent to work in space.

HTC partnered with a virtual reality therapy company called XRHealth to work on a “virtual assistance mental balance initiative” by aeronautics R&D company Nord-Space ApS to try to meet astronauts’ unique needs. HTC believes its tweaked headset Vive Focus 3 won’t make astronauts become disoriented or lose their lunch unlike past attempts at using VR in space, where the lack of gravity needed to give a VR headset its directional frame of reference can become nauseatingly out of sync with its wearer’s movements.

The Vive Focus 3 and its controllers packed in a blue bento-style box, with each component strapped down.
The HTC Vive Focus 3, packed for its trip to the ISS.
Image: Danish Aerospace Company / Nord-Space ApS

Thomas Dexmier, AVP of Enterprise Solutions at HTC, told The Verge in an interview that, besides software changes and some necessary power management adjustments, the Vive Focus 3 Mogensen will test is otherwise the same one it sells here on Earth.

The company says it addressed the spatial orientation problem in software, tying its tracking algorithms to one of the controllers, which is stationary and tracked by the cameras and proximity sensor of the headset. That gives the Focus 3 the relative positioning it needs to match its motion to the wearer. At the same time, the wearer can navigate menus either using eye-tracking or the other controller.

An animated GIF showing testing of the Vive Focus 3 on a parabolic flight.
Testing the Vive Focus 3 on a parabolic flight in November 2022.
Image: Novespace

The months-long stay will be a big test of whether HTC’s approach works. Until now, HTC says the headset has only been weightless for about 20 seconds at a time, during the simulated orbital freefall aboard parabolic flights. If the Focus 3 proves resilient on this mission, it could open the door to a more robust space-based VR experience targeted at longer missions — including a possible two-year round-trip voyage to Mars.

Accompanying HTC’s tweaks on the mission is the VR software built by XRHealth. Eran Orr, the company’s founder and CEO, said that Mogensen will have access to about 10 primarily 360-degree videos, including some from Denmark, where he’s from, “with the idea of trying to give [him] a sense of home.” The software will also offer short breathing and meditation exercises, while further updates may bring more features after the headset is on the station.

A picture of a valley surrounded by mountains and framed by trees and other vegetation in both the lower right corner and upper left corner of the image.
A screenshot from one of the videos XRHealth created for the Vive Focus 3’s ISS testing.
Image: XRHealth

But this, as with the Vive hardware, is only a test — there is no treatment aspect. It’s a “very small step forward,” Orr told me, “but the vision is a magnitude bigger than what we are doing now.” Eventually, XRHealth hopes for astronauts to use the headset to connect with people back on Earth, including therapists and coaches.

A person wearing a virtual reality headset and gloves, mimicking movements needed to repair equipment during a spacewalk.
Astronaut Andreas Mogensen undergoing spacewalk training in the Virtual Reality Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.
Image: NASA

NASA has been playing with VR for a long time. In the 1980s, work at NASA’s Amex Research Center had a direct connection to the VR craze of the 90s through the Power Glove. More recently, NASA and Microsoft co-developed HoloLens software so that ground-based crew could see what astronauts see and mark things in their field of view. VR is also a crucial part of astronaut training. It’s only natural the agency would be interested in using VR for astronauts’ behavioral health, too.

Correction November 2nd, 2023, 11:36PM ET: The original version of this article misspelled Thomas Dexmier’s name. We regret the error.