context and background
NASA’s Artemis program is focused on returning humans to the Moon by 2024, aiming to establish a sustainable presence on the lunar surface. In support of this ambitious mission, NASA has developed the ATLAS, an Augmented Reality Toolkit for Lunar Astronauts and Scientists. The ATLAS is a flexible system integrated into the Artemis generation spacesuits, designed to support astronaut autonomy during lunar expeditions.
As emerging technologies like augmented reality become increasingly important for supporting astronaut autonomy in long-duration space exploration, the ATLAS system represents an important step forward in providing astronauts with the tools they need to succeed in their missions.
As the UX lead, user researcher, and human-in-the-loop coordinator for the ATLAS project, I ensured that the system was designed with user needs in mind and that it would be effective and easy to use in the challenging environment of space exploration.
The main goals of the ATLAS project, an augmented reality toolkit for lunar astronauts and scientists, were to support astronauts during various parts of their extravehicular activities (EVAs). To achieve this, we defined success for the project in the following ways:
Functionality: The software should be fully functional and reliable, enabling astronauts to use it easily and supporting their autonomy during lunar expeditions.
Usability: The interface should be minimal and easy to use, allowing astronauts to interact with the AR system quickly and efficiently.
Proof of concept: The project should demonstrate the feasibility and potential of using AR technology as a flexible toolkit integrated into spacesuits to support astronaut autonomy on lunar expeditions.
Our methodology involved a user-centered design approach emphasizing usability and functionality. I used various tools and technologies to develop and test the toolkit and collaborated closely with subject matter experts and geologists to ensure the toolkit met their needs:
Research and documentation: I conducted desk research on UX for augmented reality and documented design principles, best practices, and technical requirements. This involved studying existing AR projects like JARVIS and Holo-SEXTANT.
Design: I created a sticker sheet in Figma with a basic UI foundation, including color, typography, and visual components like cards, data visualizations, and icons. I also created a general concept UI layout in Adobe XD to reinforce some of the fields of view positioning, get feedback from the rest of the team and helped with conversation design to support voice commands.
User research: I conducted five subject matter expert interviews at NASA and five geologist interviews at the University of Michigan on sampling protocols. I used these interviews to produce user flows for navigation and sampling.
Development: We used tools and technologies like Adobe XD, Photoshop, Illustrator, Figma, Microsoft Hololens, and Unity to develop the ATLAS AR toolkit.
Testing and evaluation: We conducted Human-in-the-loop testing on 5 graduate students using the Hololens in the Hab Lab. We distributed a Qualtrics survey design adapted from NASA Task Load Index, which we administered as a post-test.
We projected that the augmented reality toolkit developed by our team would provide several benefits to NASA and its users. One of the main benefits was increased astronaut autonomy and efficiency during lunar expeditions. The AR toolkit supports astronauts during various parts of their extravehicular activities (EVAs), providing them with real-time navigation, biometric monitoring, and sample identification, among other features.
Another benefit of the AR toolkit is enhanced safety and accuracy in completing mission tasks and sampling. The toolkit’s color scheme allows for improved visualization of the lunar surface over low-Earth Orbit, enabling astronauts to navigate and conduct sampling procedures with greater precision. Using GeoNotes and sample identification will contribute to a better understanding of the geology of the lunar surface.
In addition to improving safety and efficiency, the AR toolkit facilitates better communication and data sharing among astronauts and mission control. The toolkit includes a communication module that allows for voice commands and instant messaging, enabling real-time communication between astronauts.
Finally, the AR toolkit has the potential to provide cost savings in future space exploration missions through its flexibility and adaptability. The toolkit can be easily customized and adapted to meet the specific needs of different missions, reducing the need for multiple specialized tools.
During the development process, our team faced several challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the ability to conduct in-person testing and collaboration. Additionally, the limited availability of hardware and software resources for AR development posed a challenge. Another challenge was designing an interface that is both minimal and easy to use while still providing necessary information and functionality.
Our team adapted to remote work and communication through virtual collaboration tools like Zoom and Slack to address these challenges. We also utilized available resources efficiently and creatively, such as repurposing gaming engines and libraries for AR development. Finally, we conducted user testing remotely using the Hololens emulator and other tools and solicited feedback from experts and stakeholders to refine the interface and functionality.
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