Mars500 gaming helps develop electronic helpers for deep space crews

Animation of the lunar lander game
2 June 2010

About to be shut away from the outside world, the Mars500 volunteers still get to have fun. Their duties will include regular playing of video games – though with a serious purpose.

Results from the games will help develop computerised ‘electronic partners’ to support crews on future deep space missions.

The latest stage of the international Mars500 programme begins in June: a six-man crew will be sealed in an isolation facility at Moscow’s Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) for 520 days, reflecting the time a return trip to the Red Planet would require. Highlighting the human factors involved in long-duration spaceflight, the crew will carry out tasks similar to those of a real mission.

Mars500 facility
The Mars500 facility

In addition, they will participate in fortnightly half-hour video game sessions. Crewmen take part three at a time, on a single-player game to fly a lunar lander and a multi-player game where participants cooperate to move coloured trails, as well as a collaborative training system familiarising them with various work procedures.

These sessions will be about more than just enjoyment: the results will be carefully logged and players will fill in detailed questionnaires about their responses to the games, how difficult they found them and their current emotional status.

Diego Urbina in the Mars500 facility
Diego Urbina in the Mars500 facility

Interaction between players via instant mail will also be recorded, and even their expressions will be captured via webcam.

The information is being compiled for an ESA project called ‘Mission Execution Crew Assistant’ (MECA), which is developing personalised software agents to interact with crews on deep space missions, boosting the overall effectiveness of such human-machine teams.

Video game
Coloured trails game

“Future deep space crews will be on their own as never before,” said Mark Neerincx of TNO Human Factors, overseeing the MECA project for ESA.

“With resources scarce, they will be faced with problems that are complex, unknown and potentially dangerous. However, realtime advice from mission control will not be available due to the vast distances involved.

Mars500 training session
Collaborative training

“The MECA concept aims to provide support for the crew with personal ‘ePartners’ within the mission’s ubiquitous computing environment. These ePartners would help the crew assess the situation, determine a suitable course of action to resolve it, and protect crewmen from failures that arise.

“To enhance collaboration, the ePartners need to interact with their human counterparts in a meaningful, intuitive way - interpreting changes in the state and performance of the crew then acting accordingly. So if a astronaut is distracted due to high ‘cognitive task loads’ or going into a panic state, the agent would choose the optimal way to communicate with them, using a particular tone of voice perhaps or visual avatar expression.”

Mars500, training
Teacher's view during collaborative training

In addition, Mars500 results from the coloured trail game are also being used in a linked effort, the Automatic Mental Health Assistant (AMHA) project, attempting to track shifts in the crew’s social interaction patterns.

The human behaviour data gathered during Mars500 will feed back into the wider MECA design process, explained Mikael Wolff of ESA’s Software Systems Division: “The work is proceeding on an iterative basis, with initial system requirements refined through human-in-the-loop testing. We began with virtual simulations then began testing during the initial Mars500 study, a 105-day simulation which took place at the IBMP last year.

Scheduling interface
Session scheduling

“Illustrating how the system is evolving, last time around crewmen could not fix anything in ‘external memory’ during their sessions, but this time around MECA captures user experiences in a context that crewmen can consult and enrich with multimedia information.

“And in the current version, crewmen take turns to be the ‘teacher’ in the training system, but next time around MECA can take this role directly based on the results from the Mars500 experiment.”

The previous crew turned out to enjoy playing the games on their own time – the lunar lander game proving a particular hit. Others could soon get to try it: the MECA team plans similar testing at Europe’s Concordia base in the Antarctic, and potentially aboard ISS.

About MECA

The MECA project is led for ESA by TNO Human Factors (NL), with Science & Technology BV (NL), OK-Systems (ES) and EADS-Astrium (DE) as partners. Within the Mars500 programme, MECA is collaborating with the AMHA project of the Technical University of Eindhoven (NL), which is applying game-based tools for automatic diagnosis of team cohesion.

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