“Earth to Mars, Earth to Mars.” This may sound like a radio transmission from NASA, but it is actually the brainchild of Lockheed Martin, whose “Mars Experience Bus” has revolutionized field trips by transporting students out of this world. Virtually, that is.
The Mars Bus recently took its virtual-reality show on the road, kicking off its national tour in Denver. It is scheduled to make stops in Florida, Texas, Alabama, California and New Mexico.
Long considered an extension of the classroom, the school bus is the perfect vehicle for delivering the “first-ever group VR experience,” according to the aerospace company. The Mars Bus debuted in April at the USA Science and Engineering Festival held in D.C. as part of Lockheed Martin’s “Generation Beyond” educational program, which aims to bring the science of space into schools.
The virtual bus ride is just one component of the company’s new STEM program, which includes an online curriculum about deep space and the smartphone app Hello Mars. With this app, students can map Mars’ location and receive real-time weather reports.
The first group of students to climb aboard the Mars Bus thought they were going on a regular field trip—until the lights went out. When they came back on, the kids found themselves surrounded by the craggy terrain of the red planet.
No goggles or headsets are required for this virtual field trip, which is powered by the same software used in the most advanced video games today. The windows of the renovated IC Bus CE Series conventional have been switched out for high-definition screens, and the steering wheel doubles as a video game controller.
To make this project fully immersive, developers invented a way for transparent windows to become high-def. displays, and mapped every street in Washington, D.C. on the surface of Mars, so wherever the experiment starts, riders would start off on the exact same road on the Red Planet.
To develop the Mars Experience Bus, Lockheed Martin teamed up with its advertising agency, McCann New York, and Framestore, the VR and special effects studio that worked on the 2015 feature film “The Martian.”
The end result is a virtual bus ride that has taken the tech world by storm. In August, Adweek announced the Mars Bus had won the Gravity Award, the highest honor in its Project Isaac Awards competition. It also swept this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, taking home 19 awards in 11 categories, including cyber, PR, entertainment and innovation.
The team used a system associated with video games to reenact the twists and turns of a yellow bus, according to Adweek. They created a 200-square-mile Martian landscape for the bus after viewing photos and video from the Curiosity Rover that has explored Mars for four years. To create realistic sound effects, the team simply visited a junkyard, where they threw sand and rocks against buses and recorded the audio.
“With VR, you always think it’s goggles and glasses,” McCann senior producer Chance Bassett told Adweek. “But there’s nothing in the definition that says goggles and glasses … This just opens up a whole new world. It’s VR without being isolated, which just is amazing because as humans we experience things together.” ●