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The doctor will see you (anywhere) now

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Once again, life imitates “Star Trek.” An earthbound doctor made a virtual house call on the International Space Station (ISS) — as a live, interactive holographic visitor. While the technology was not quite as sophisticated as Doc, the fictional holographic chief medical officer and opera singer from the “Star Trek: Voyager” series, the demonstration on the space station enabled astronauts to speak with medical professionals on Earth as if all were present on the station.

Flight surgeon Dr. Josef Schmid and his team, along with a couple of (non-Ferengi) space capitalists from industry partner Aexa Aerospace, were the first humans holoported from Earth into space.

European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet used a Microsoft HoloLens that was equipped with an Azure Kinect camera, along with custom software from Aexa, to share a conversation with the holographic images of Schmid and Aexa CEO Fernando De La Peña Llaca.

Holoportation technology reconstructs high-quality 3D models of people before compressing and streaming the models as live holographic images anywhere in real time. The addition of mixed reality displays such as HoloLens allows users on the far end of the stream to see, hear, and interact with remote counterparts as if all of the participants are present in the same physical space. Schmid’s interaction with the ISS astronauts marked the first holoportation of an individual into the harsh remote environment of space.

The successful exchange introduces a new avenue for human exploration, wherein an earthbound human can travel virtually into space. NASA is demonstrating this new form of communication as a precursor for the technology’s more extensive use on future space missions. The agency plans to also use the technology for two-way communication, in which people on Earth are holoported to space and astronauts are placed back on Earth.

The next step will be to combine holoportation with augmented reality to enable telementoring.

In an article about the ISS exchange on NASA TV, Schmid speculated about the larger potential that holoportation offers humankind. “Imagine you can bring the best instructor or the actual designer of a particularly complex technology right beside you wherever you might be working on it,” he said. “Furthermore, we will combine augmented reality with haptics. You can work on the device together, much like two of the best surgeons working during an operation. This would put everyone at rest knowing the best team is working together on a critical piece of hardware.”

NASA flight surgeon Dr. Josef Schmid gives a Vulcan salute while being holoported aboard the International Space Station. Image courtesy of Thomas Pesquet/European Space Agency.

NASA flight surgeon Dr. Josef Schmid gives a Vulcan salute while being holoported aboard the International Space Station. Image courtesy of Thomas Pesquet/European Space Agency.

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2022
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