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Field Trip to Mars in a Real-Life Magic School Bus

All aboard the first-ever headset-free VR vehicle.

Life on Mars has been the subject of countless films, books, and television shows, as far back as the 18th century, but never before has there been a Red Planet experience as immersive as this. The Mars Experience bus, the first-ever vehicle VR system, transports passengers from Earth to the barren Martian desert. Combining elements of artistic design and engineering, the team at Generation Beyond converted an everyday yellow school bus into a giant VR console that took a classroom of kids on an actual field trip—a long drive around DC included—to another world. The virtual landscape of the planet was designed by Framestore, the major VFX studio behind The Martian, Guardians of the Galaxy, and so many more. Using the Unreal game engine, the Framestore team created their own real-world environments, including cascading mountain ranges and bleak desert valleys. 

Up until this point, virtual reality has been resulted in a somewhat isolating experience for the individual. Generation Beyond's first big hurdle was to create a VR system that could a group could engaged with. By replacing each window on the bus with a transparent 4K display and a layer of switchable glass film, they were able to remove the headset, as adding electricity to this "smart" film causes the surfaces of the window glass to switch from transparent to opaque. This allowed the team to seamlessly switch between the world outside of the bus and their simulated environment. Sue McNamara, one of the Senior Producers at Framestore, says, “I think what makes it magical is that when the bus starts moving all of the hardware and software disappears and it just feels like you’re on Mars.” 

The simulator operates in sync with the actual movements of the bus. The vehicle's position and velocity is monitored using a GPS, a three-axis accelerometer, a magnetometer, and a laser surface velocimeter. The laser, fastened to the side of the bus, is pointed down at the floor, measuring how far the bus has moved in any particular direction, then recreating it on Mars' surface. 

Similarly, should the bus hit a pothole or speed bump, the simulator registers the information and recreates it on Mars. Whatever turns the bus makes, the simulator makes, too. In order to create such large and responsive grid, Generation Beyond and Framestore had to render their virtual Mars in real time. Developers mapped every street in Washington DC onto the virtual surface of Mars so the bus could travel anywhere in the city. They ended up developing a driveable area that came out to about 250 square miles, which is about four-fifths the area of New York City. Sound is another essential part of the experience. The simulated Mars ride takes place during a desert sandstorm. Fixed with a surround sound system, it's as close as it gets to being trapped in a deadly Martian typhoon. 

What's more, Generation Beyond is the educational subsidiary of Lockheed Martin. The program focuses on exploring creative new ways technology can be applied in and out of the classroom. Thus far, Generation Beyond’s program centers around space travel and the exploration of the Red Planet. In addition to the Mars Experience bus, the group has developed an interactive trip to Mars aboard the Orion spacecraft. Check out the Mars Experience below: 

How to Take a Field Trip to Mars from LM Bus on Vimeo.

Learn more about the Generation Beyond program here.

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