I’m standing on a high peak, surrounded by red Martian rocks, when the sand storm approaches. I see it in the distance. It bubbles up in the atmosphere, its menacing clouds coming closer and closer. When the red wind finally hits, it’s underwhelming. There aren’t any gusts against my body, no flecks of dirt against my helmet, no adrenaline running through my veins. All I can feel is the queasiness that comes with spending a half-hour using a VR headset.
This is Mars 2030, a VR experience of the Red Planet produced by Fusion Media Group in partnership with NASA and MIT’s AeroAstro Lab. (Fusion Media Group is a competitor of Vox Media, The Verge‘s parent company.) Mars 2030 allows you to wander around 15 square miles of Martian landscape. You can plant a flag, pick up some rocks, drive a rover, visit a habitat, and do pretty much nothing else. However, there’s no game, no task for you to accomplish (other than analyzing rocks for traces of life), and no life-threatening situations. You can’t even die. Overall, it’s very much unlike what a mission to the Red Planet would probably be like.
Just traveling across 34 million miles of deep space to get to Mars would be a huge challenge: zero gravity and space radiation would likely ravage your body and mess with your mind. Even if you get there in one piece, there won’t be much lallygagging around outside; you’d be spending every single minute of your life trying to not die. The atmosphere is unbreathable, there’s no liquid water, and the average temperature is about minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The gravity is also a third of what’s on Earth, and it’s not clear what would happen to your sack of skin, blood, and bones once you’re there. (And we haven’t even gotten to the problems of growing food — mainly that the soil might be toxic.)
The Mars 2030 VR experience assumes all this has been figured out already, which is a mistake. After all, trying to figure out how to survive on Mars is narratively rich and compelling. When you arrive, you have to figure out how to remove perchlorates from the soil, set up a functioning habitat and its solar panels, or build a robot to mine Mars for water, for instance — or you die. Having a storyline doesn’t make something less educational. Just ask any US student who learned what dysentery was from the early video game The Oregon Trail.
The VR “experience” just shows you that there’s already a habitat powered by solar panels and a greenhouse where potatoes and broccoli are growing underneath purplish-pink LED lights. The toilet looks very futuristic, with what looks like a suction system and two levers on each side. I try to pull the lever, just to hear a toilet flush in VR, but it doesn’t work. There’s also a humanoid robot called Valkyrie that’s supposed to assist with tasks like mining the Martian soil for water. I encounter Valkyrie once: creepily marching in place as if it’s glitching.
After visiting the habitat, I teletransport to a cavern that was once a lava tube. (There’s also the option of “walking,” but it was so nausea-inducing that the creators decided to add a teletransport button.) The cavern is long and convoluted. It’d look like a cave here on Earth if it weren’t for the dusty, red rocks. I pick one up and suddenly I’m shown a scene from billions years ago, when volcanoes were spewing huge streams of lava on the surface Mars. Another rock I pick up later shows me a different scene on Mars, complete with a giant lake and floating icebergs.
The VR experience is meant to show what strolling around Mars will be like in 2030, around the time NASA plans to get there. The spaceship, habitat, and space suits are all based on NASA’s concepts, with “the highest regard for scientific accuracy,” the project leader Julian Beyes tells me. But you won’t be able to feel like you’re on the Red Planet: you’re just sitting on a chair holding two joysticks, looking at a computerized version of a Martian landscape that looks more stunning on an actual 2D photograph. For an “immersive” VR experience, it’s pretty boring. (I was invited to test a near-finished preview of the experience, which has since been updated for a “better build.”)
There was only one moment in the VR experience that felt real to me: I was outside the lava tube, at night, alone in this alien expanse. The night sky was filled with brilliant stars, just like it would be here on Earth. For a second, I really did feel like an astronaut on another planet. If humans walk on Mars, perhaps they, too, will marvel at the weird familiarity of seeing the Milky Way from an alien world.
Then, they’ll go back to worrying about staying alive.
Mars 2030 is available for $14.99 today on Steam for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. It’s coming out on PlayStation VR next year. The download is free for teachers and students.