PEORIA — They meet twice a week throughout the school year for no pay and no academic credit.
They are neither class nor club.
They are 13 students who individually are at different stages of studying their way toward a bachelor's degree from Bradley University, but as a group identify as the Bradley University Experimental Augmented Reality Team for HoloLens. Better known as:
"We're really just a ragtag bunch of students who literally just decided, 'Hey, let's put a band together, and give this a try'" said Alanis Nash, the founder and driving undergraduate force behind the group that is collaborating with NASA — yes, that NASA — on a functioning space goggle for spacewalking astronauts. "There were six of us last year and 13 this year. So we're getting bigger."
EARTH is a free labor collaboration with NASA. It's a knowledge-driven mini-student think tank tasked with creating applications that can be used with Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality technology that transfers to the inside of a helmet worn by astronauts floating in space outside the International Space Station. The real-world problem-solving exercise is an invaluable educational experience for the students, and a technological test kitchen of knowledge for NASA. Nash learned of the program while attending a Women in Engineering conference in Austin, Texas, two years ago.
"It is work that NASA needed," Nash said. "And it sounded like fun."
Heather Ford, the Bradley department of interactive media user interface instructor who coordinated the project, said the program developed by the students is on the leading edge of design in the industry, creating one of the earliest applications for a technology that has recently emerged with more far-reaching potential than actual uses.
"It's not just for fun anymore — there are real-world applications," Ford told the Journal Star in an interview for a story published in 2018. "It's going in all sorts of different directions."
Seated at a tall table inside a busy Bob Michel Student Center recently, were four members of EARTH: Nash, an electrical and computer engineering student from Peoria who will graduate on Saturday; Zach Bachman, a sophomore computer science major from Oswego; Jason Daluga, a junior computer science major from Libertyville; and, Nathan McNaught, a junior computer science major from Antioch. The nearby lunch crowd buzzed with banter. The group had laptops and cellphones spread out across the table top. Two uninvolved female students sat at the far end of the table and showed zero interest or curiosity about the conversation next to them, apparently accustomed to chatter about NASA, spacewalks, augmented reality and the specifications of the Microsoft HoloLens eyewear. They appeared amused by the idea that others might find their interests, well, sort of deep science geeky.
"We just kind of go about our business," Daluga said. "Not everyone is that interested in what we do."
EARTH is working on an application that astronauts can read inside their helmets while performing tasks during spacewalks outside the space station. It's like a virtual owner's manual projected and floating inside the helmet that can be read without blocking the astronaut's vision. The wearer only needs to say "Next page," to flip to the next page of information. The group designed, coded and programmed the application and is preparing to present their findings to NASA in Houston at the end of August. Bachman described the difference between virtual reality — what the Microsoft HoloLens is NOT — and augmented reality, what the HoloLens IS an example of.
"Put your hand over your eyes," Bachman said, placing his right hand over both of his eyes. Virtual reality is "exactly what you see in front of you. Your hand. Now hold your hand out at arm's length."
He held his hand out at arm's length.
"Augmented reality is seeing your hand, but also seeing everything else in your field of vision," he said.
The application in space would allow an astronaut to read the instructions for a task projected in their vision, while also allowing the astronaut to see the exterior of the space station, the other astronaut by their side and at the proper angle and with the proper placement, the entirety of planet Earth in the distance.
"You can see how that would be an advantage," Bachman said.
NASA is not just looking for direct results necessarily. It has a couple of its own scientists on the payroll working on stuff. But EARTH will present its findings and prototype to NASA scientists at the annual event in the agency's home city.
"They are looking to see how we solve problems. What works. What doesn't work," Nash said.
The group headed for Houston on the day of the unwelcome and largely unexpected April snowstorm.
"We ended up getting into Houston at about 4 a.m. when it was originally scheduled for 11 a.m. the previous day," Nash said.
The first day onsite the group presented their project to the other 11 schools that sent a team to Houston. On Wednesday, they presented to NASA employees then went to a Microsoft store in a nearby mall and set up there.
"This allowed for community members and Micorosoft employees to come see how we were using their device," Nash said.
On Friday, the group gave its formal presentation to a team of judges from both NASA and Microsoft.
"This went splendidly. We got lots of compliments for 'having fun' during the challenge," she said.
There was little time to bask in the glory of their success.
"Saturday we flew back, and we resumed classes like normal," Nash said.
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.