Creating an A-Frame Lunar Analog Environment

As the resident UX researcher and human in the loop testing co-coordinator for CLAWS, it’s my responsibility to plan, facilitate, and analyze usability tests with real people to get feedback on our AR Toolkit for Lunar Astronauts and Scientists (ATLAS). Earlier this year, CLAWS participated in the NASA SUITS Challenge, the pandemic forced our school to close campus, including our lab. My test plan was scrapped, and although I scrambled to put together a fully interactive prototype that participants could click through on their computer, I wasn’t quite able to complete it in time.

In the coming school year, CLAWS has opted to conduct all collaboration and research activities virtually, including HITL usability testing. Having this pre-plan in place, I’ve begun thinking about how to get the most out of remote testing. First, unlike last year, I am pushing for a more agile and iterative design cycle.

Instead of spending months evaluating our own work before showing it to test participants, I am seeking to test once a month, beginning with a simple paper prototype that we can test remotely with Marvel App. Based on our findings from these tests, we can improve our design. With Marvel, you simply draw your screens out by hand, take photos of them, and then you can link them together with interactive hotspots for test participants to click through.

Initially, I had proposed Adobe XD as a means of putting together an interactive prototype for remote testing and demonstration purposes. With XD, designers have the capability of creating complex prototypes that compliment the modularity ATLAS requires. You can create components, and instead of having to create multiple screens to represent every interaction, you can create every interactive state of that component within the component itself! On top of this, XD allows designers to connect sound files to interactions. Sound files like this one:

PremiumBeat_0013_cursor_click_06.wav

…which could be used to provide audio feedback letting the user know the system has accepted the user’s command.

Depending on how complex we want to get with our prototype, we could even test the implementation of our Voiced Entity for Guiding Astronauts (VEGA), the Jarvis-like AI assistant.

This will be a great way to test ease of use and overall experience before committing the design to code. However, I’ve also begun thinking about the best way to demonstrate our final deliverable to wider audiences. Even if we have a vaccine, it’s likely that a lot of conferences will still be held virtually. Furthermore, this is a big project, with a lot of students working on it, and we should have a final deliverable that showcases our work in an easily accessible format in order to feature it in our portfolio.

One of the possibilities I’m exploring is wiarframe. This is an app that allows you to set up your AR interface using simple images of your interface components.

The wiarframe design canvas

Designers can also prototype a variety of look (gaze, stare) and proximity (approaches, reaches, embraces, retreat) gesture interactions where the component can change state, manipulate other components, even open a URL, call an API, or open another wiarframe interface. This ability to open another wiarframe could enable my team to prototype and link together the individual modules for the user to navigate between.

Wiarframe is really useful when it comes to AR on mobile devices. Less so when the AR is coming from a head mounted display (HMD). Because, to open a wiarframe prototype, users must download the mobile app, and then anchor the interface to a surface.

This is really fun, but there is no sense of immersion. Back at our lab, the BLiSS team created a near life-sized mockup of an ISS airlock with which to immerse test participants in a kind of analog environment. This is common for testing designs for human-computer interaction in space. It is still too costly to test designs on actual users in the context of spaceflight (Holden, Ph.D., Ezer, Ph.D., & Vos, Ph.D., 2013).

In order to get the best feedback out of remote usability testing, we’re going to need an immersive environment, it needs to be cheap and relatively easy to put together, and widely accessible so that we don’t constrain our recruiting pool such that we can’t find participants with the appropriate equipment to test with.

I believe these requirements can be met and our problems solved with A-Frame. A-Frame allows creators to make WebVR with HTML and Javascript, that anybody with a web browser can experience. What’s more, users can fully immerse themselves in the VR environment with a headset like Vive, Rift, Daydream, GearVR.

On top of this, as I was exploring what A-Frame could do through the Showcase examples, I came across a WebVR experiment by NASA, Access Mars. Using A-Frame, users are given the opportunity to explore the real surface of Mars by creating a mesh of images recorded by NASA’s Curiosity rover. Users can actually move around to different areas and learn about Mars by interacting with elements.

An image from Access Mars instructing users on how to interact with it.

New to A-frame, I wasn’t really sure where to begin. Luckily Kevin Ngo of Supermedium, who maintains A-Frame, has a lot of his components available on Github. With limited experience, I was able to find a suitable starting environment, and with a few minor changes to the code, I developed an initial lunar environment.

Screenshot of the A-Frame lunar analog environment

If you’d like to look around, follow this link:

https://mtthwgrvn-aframe-lunar-analog.glitch.me/

I’ll be honest there’s not much to see. Still, I’m excited about how easy it was to put this together. Similar to Access Mars, I’d like to develop this environment a little more so that users can do some basic movement from location to location. If we use this to test the Rock Identification for Geological Evaluation w.LIDAR(?) (RIGEL) interface, some additional environmental variables would have to be implemented to better simulate geological sampling. There are physics models that can be incorporated to support controllers which would allow for a user with one of the VR headsets mentioned above, to be able to manipulate objects with their hands. The downside of this is it would limit who we could recruit as a testing participant.

If nothing else, I want to be able to test with users through their own web browser. Ideally, they’ll be able to share their screen so I can see what they’re looking at, and their webcam so I can see their expression while they’re looking at it. While it’s not the same as actually being on the surface of the Moon, creating analog environments for simulating habitat design are relatively common at NASA (Stuster, 1996; Clancey, 2004; see also: NEEMO and BASALT). A WebVR environment as a lunar analog in which to test AR concepts follows this approach.

For usability scoring, we are using the standard NASA TLX subjective workload assessment as a Qualtrics survey to get feedback ratings on six subscales:

  • Mental demand
  • Physical demand
  • Temporal demand
  • Performance
  • Effort
  • Frustration

But testing aside, I also think WebVR is the best way to showcase our project as a readily accessible and interactive portfolio piece that interviewers could play with simply by clicking a link as we describe our role and what we did on the project. On top of this, with outreach being a core component of the work we do in CLAWS, an WebVR experience is ideal for younger students to experience ATLAS from the comfort and safety of their own home.

References

Clancey, W. J. (2004). Participant Observation of a Mars Surface Habitat Mission. Moffett Field, CA: NASA-Ames Research Center.

Holden, Ph.D., K., Ezer, Ph.D., N., & Vos, Ph.D., G. (2013). Evidence Report: Risk of Inadequate Human-Computer Interaction. Human Research Program: Space Human Factors and Habitability, 1–46.

Published by Matthew Garvin

UX Research | Culture | Information | Human-Computer Interaction

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