To the Moon and Back: AR Meets Space Exploration

Selfie of a young man posing in front of decommissioned space modules

Photo Credit: Rylan Pozniak Daniels

July 12, 2022 | Alana Altmann

“How can AR experiences be designed so they actually make technology more approachable?” 

That is a question Rylan Pozniak Daniels is on a quest to answer through his work in augmented and virtual reality. The USC Iovine and Young Academy student has over seven years of AR and VR application creation experience behind him, and when he looks to the future, accessibility is at the core of his mission. 

When considering space travel, unattainability and discomfort might come to mind – think explorers in cumbersome gear traversing an unfamiliar landscape. As prepared as they are, even astronauts could benefit from a better user experience. 

That’s where Rylan Daniels and his vision for AR comes in. This summer, he was invited by a small group of Stanford University students to compete on their team in the NASA SUITS (Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students) national competition, which challenges students to design and produce augmented reality-enabled spacesuit displays intended for moon exploration on the upcoming Artemis mission. After being selected as finalists, Daniels and his team headed to the Johnson Space Center. Not only did they get to tour the original control center that launched the notable Apollo missions (does “Houston, we have a problem” ring a bell?), they were able to demo and test their app prototype, then present it to NASA astronauts and engineers, explaining their research and app development.

A young man holds a microphone alongside three peers on stage in front of an auditorium audience. Behind them is a slide that reads "ARROW on the Moon: The AR-enhanced space exploration will combine interactive interfaces and spatial understanding"

Photo Credit: James Blair / NASA JSC

Daniels and his team’s app “enabled lunar navigation capabilities, where a holographic map pinned to the astronaut's palm guided them through a series of waypoints, and showcased 3D visualizations of collected lunar rock samples.” In other words, the concept helps astronauts get around better, collect samples more easily, and stay safe while they’re at it. 

“NASA and space exploration technology in general never really had voice commands, hand gestures, or even AR,” Daniels explains, pointing out that, with the advent of augmented reality, we’re in a new frontier for space travel. “Now we kind of make that experience much more immersive and contextual. Now the interface we created will help them navigate better so that they can have their hands free on what they need to do and continue to explore.”

Daniels and his team had a unique challenge of anticipating the needs of said explorers embarking on the surface of the moon. In addition to collaborating on-site with real astronauts and engineers, he and his team surveyed crucial areas space travelers would benefit the most from when utilizing AR. Immersive navigation was key, and the interface design reflects that need.

“Imagine embedded into the glass of the astronaut helmets is a sort of AR display or AR functionality that gives astronauts from NASA extra information and abilities they might need while engaging in tasks on the surface of the moon. It’s very much about creating an AR experience that exists on an AR headset embedded on the astronaut helmet,” Daniels describes.

“I also created a hand map. Hand gestures were a really an important feature of the prototype,” he adds. “If you moved your hand, a map of the surrounding environment on the surface of the moon would actually show up on your hand. Imagine a tablet screen with a map that’s superimposed on the surface of your hand. You almost become embodied in the entire experience.”

A young man holds a microphone and gestures with savvy
A young man in half a space suit holds out his arms as if for an embrace

Photo Credits: Left, James Blair / NASA JSC; Right, Rylan Pozniak Daniels

Another use case Daniels’ app accounts for is geological research, as astronauts could use AR displays to locate and classify rock samples they collect for storage and analysis. 

There is also the critical implementation of search and rescue operations. “Say there are multiple astronauts on the moon and one astronaut runs into some kind of trouble. Immediately our interface can actually almost save astronaut lives. It immediately will tell the other astronaut the location of the lost astronaut and they can immediately go to help and have search and rescue functionality,” Daniels explains. 

Daniels shares that the interface his team developed has the potential to actually be integrated with the astronauts that proceed to the surface of the moon, and that his role in developing the project was on the user experience side of AR. 

“A lot of what I’ve been learning about at IYA is UX. I’ve been able to fuse my background in AR and VR and take these UX learnings to make even more compelling experiences and products,” he adds of how the Academy has informed his work. 

Selfie of a group of four young people smiling near a poster that reads "NASA Team ARROW"

Photo Credit: Rylan Pozniak Daniels

Daniels might be literally reaching for the moon for this particular project, but AR and VR are longtime passions of his, and a robust resume of pursuits led him to this moment. He’s worked in the development of medical and educational VR apps, created lenses for SnapChat, and worked on a prototyping team during an Apple internship. He’s currently interning with Niantic, Inc., the mobile app company behind Pokemon Go. Prior to his visit to NASA, Daniels competed in TreeHacks, a global hackathon held by Stanford, where he and a team were honored to win a prize in a category close to Daniels’ visionary heart: accessibility. But this innovation had nothing to do with outer space. In fact, the VR experience centered on learning how to compose music through a virtual reality medium, democratizing music composition education. 

“My thesis is that AR should be used to help democratize these groundbreaking, bleeding-edge technologies to the masses,” he elucidates. “I think what really excites me the most about AR and VR compared to other new technologies like AI or Blockchain or other things that might pop up in the news, is that AR and VR will have the biggest chance of making a positive human and social impact. It really is about reimagining these cutting-edge technologies for the future for everyone. Even for astronauts who go out there.” 

Whether it’s music composition education or spacesuit elevation, Daniels is staying true to his impactful goal of keeping augmented and virtual reality, well… real. 

He concludes, “My core thing through all projects I do is really look at the human side of how AR and VR can be used.” 

That’s one giant leap for mankind, indeed.