The Apollo Landing Site Panorama VR Experience earned the Bronze 2020 MUSE Award in the AR/VR/Mixed Reality category by the American Alliance of Museums.
The Apollo Landing Site Panorama VR Experience (Apollo Pano VR) was one of the most engaging components of an eight-month exhibition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landings. The large (8,100 sq. ft.) gallery, entitled Launchpad, included artifacts, hands-on interactives, and personal informational stations.
The Apollo Pano VR interactive consisted of a table that held six Oculus Go VR headsets. Each headset presented only a single panorama, one for each Apollo mission: Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. Guests could easily identify which mission they were viewing with the mission-specific graphics on the headset.
The panoramic images were obtained by the Apollo astronauts, who took large-format (70mm) Hasselblad cameras to the surface to obtain the most detailed images. These images provide a spectacular boots-on-the-ground view of the lunar landscape. We use Apollo Surface Panoramas, which were scanned by NASA and stitched together by researchers at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI).
LPI also provided a version of each panorama where features and mission equipment were annotated. We tested the effectiveness of the annotated images and it was observed that first-time guests we more interested in the immersion from the image and found the added text distracting.
We tested using a single headset loaded with multiple panoramas, which allows guests to explore all landing sites without changing their headsets. However, making choices in VR requires using an external controller paired with each headset. First-time users could not easily use the included wireless controller to select panorama images from different missions. We decided to pursue a simpler approach to interactivity.
Because the experience provides six headsets, each showing a different Apollo landing site, it allows for social interactions between members of groups who use the table at the same time. Staff observed conversations between family members, who were describing in words what they were seeing in the headset. In addition, this gallery is staffed with 1-3 facilitators and they would help guests with any technical issues, usually suggesting they “look around,” rather than just looking forward. They also would ask questions about how the characteristics of the lunar environment vary among landing sites.
User-centered and Universal Design, Accessibility
We created the VR interactive knowing that guests will most likely not have any experience with virtual reality. The priorities for use were 1) fun engagement, 2) ease of use, and 3) social experience with the group to encourage discussion.
In order to make it as easy as possible for guests to use the headsets, we tested software to provide a single-use experience, locking the Oculus headset into only viewing one specific panorama. The solution provided guests a splash screen with the mission patch and text instructions to press the only accessible button to view the panorama. In the simplified experience there were only three user interactions: 1) choosing the Apollo landing site to explore (by selecting the headset), 2) clicking a single button to advance past the splash screen to the panorama and 3) moving their head while looking through the headset to explore the panorama. These actions of physical selection and motion closely mirror our everyday interactions with the real world and create a new level of intuitive use.
The height of the table and visibility of labels for each headset (each Apollo landing site) were created such that guests in wheelchairs and younger visitors could read the labels and easily reach the headset. We also removed the head straps from the devices, which not only made them faster to use, but also accommodated guests with a diversity of hair types and styles.
During the first month of the Launchpad exhibition, the Museum surveyed 280 guests at the end of their time in the gallery. Of those, 25% identified Apollo Pano VR as the exhibit component that they found most enjoyable. That made it the second most popular piece of the approximately two-dozen in the installation, behind only an infrared camera (27%) and well ahead of the third-place item. Almost uniquely among the components, adults and children both ranked the experience highly.
We also observed that this component was one of the “stickiest” in the gallery, with guests frequently viewing multiple – or even all – panoramas. During a dwell-time study, the exhibition section that included Apollo Pano VR experienced the longest dwell times.
The Apollo Pano VR experience used Oculus Go head-mounted displays. We chose the cheapest versions (32 GB memory) since we had no need to install large media files on the headsets. We installed kiosk software, Oculus Go Kiosk Mode, https://oculusgokioskmode.tweaklab.org/, to lock down the headset to a single media player app, Universal Video Player (UVP). UVP was locked into playing a single video, which was created from a still from the landing site.
The most problematic aspect was to keep all six Oculus Go headsets charged throughout the day. A fully charged headset lasts around 2-3 hours with heavy use and recharging to full charge takes about 4 hours. To keep them charged, we first installed Qi wireless charging pads onto the front of the headset. We also put Qi chargers into the holders for the headsets. When guests finished the experience and put them back, they would start to charge wirelessly. However, this wireless system was very sensitive to how headsets were placed in the holders and over the day, most headsets would not charge enough due to misalignment of the charger.
We then implemented a wired charging solution, which also dealt with an issue of keeping the headsets on the VR Table and not moved to other parts of the gallery. We chose a cable length that kept the headsets from hitting the floor, while ensuring they were usable by people of all heights, standing or sitting in a wheelchair.
360 Preview of Experience
Below is a 360 viewer showing the Apollo 11 landing site as an example of the viewpoint that the guest explores in virtual reality.