Perhaps one of the most compelling cases of a federal agency employing WebMe capabilities to design and create its own virtual environment is occurring at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles, which is developing a future collaboration space for its engineering and design teams.
Like most federal agencies, JPL shifted to a mostly remote-work model in the early days of the COVID 19 pandemic. “As the Lab’s workforce dispersed across the country, employees wondered what this new phase meant for JPL’s culture, particularly the move from in-person collaboration and meetings to videoconferencing and the now-all-too-familiar impacts of ‘Zoom fatigue,’” wrote JPL’s Chris Mattmann, chief technology and innovation officer, and Whitney Haggins, an IT communication strategist, in an April 2022 article in IT Talk, a quarterly journal published by NASA’s Office of the CIO. “JPL’s key business of engineering future planetary and deep space remote sensing satellites, landers, and autonomous robots is predicated on dynamic communication and collaboration among teams. Enabling that via videoconference is extremely challenging.”
In response, JPL’s IT organization launched the “Welcome to Our MetaVerse” project. The project team began scanning workspaces and rooms at JPL and then digitally reconstructing and importing them into an application by Spatial.io, which creates 3D virtual worlds. JPL employees can then wear Oculus Quest 2 headsets to attend virtual meetings in those scanned locations. The project then plans to bring JPL employees themselves into the metaverse by using Spatial.io’s 3D face-scanning technology to create realistic avatars to represent them.
“JPL participants can congregate, meet, and take advantage of VR capabilities from the Quest 2, including spatial audio and gestures (e.g., high-five, thumbs up), as well as other features that add to the sense of realism and interactivity and the experience of ‘being together’ in as full a sense as possible,” Mattmann and Haggins wrote. “With the MetaVerse, remote and hybrid teams can innovate, create, and perform engineering activities without having to physically procure and manipulate actual materials and assemblies.”
JPL teams in this homegrown metaverse can even use the lab’s custom collaboration tool for engineering activities, called ProtoSpace, to do things like import complex computer-aided design (CAD) drawings, including JPL mission hardware, which can then be visualized and realized in a clean room alongside partially finished builds of the same hardware. “Engineers can perform just-in-time and early phase assessments and adjustments, evolving engineering design activities for missions at an extremely low cost with a high payoff,” they wrote.