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Last October, for the first time, a medical team was brought to the ISS. Astronaut Thomas Pesquet was able to chat and interact with Dr. Josef Schmid, a NASA doctor, as if he were on board with him. This is the first time that this technology has been implemented in such unusual conditions. This demonstration lays the groundwork for a new form of communication, which could be very useful during future space missions.
Telemedicine has experienced some growth in recent years, accentuated by the two-year pandemic during which access to care was limited. According to data from the Health Insurance, during the first half of 2020, while the COVID-19 was wreaking havoc in the country, the number of teleconsultations exploded in France: it went from 40,000 events in February to 4.5 million in the April! The phenomenon has disappeared since then, but the health crisis has allowed the rapid spread and adoption of this new practice, both among doctors and patients.
Telemedicine has undeniable advantages: to alleviate congestion in medical practices, to facilitate access to care for people with reduced mobility, a solution to medical deserts, and so on. Thanks to technological advances linked to this remote medicine, it is now possible to offer access to care even in the most unlikely places, such as the latest feat: the holoport of a NASA doctor and all his equipment on board of the International Space Station. A remote consultation without an interposed screen, which looks more like a home visit …
Travel the “human entity” beyond the Earth
It was using Microsoft’s Hololens Kinect camera and a computer equipped with software developed specifically for this use by AEXA Aerospace that Thomas Pesquet was able to speak live with Dr. Josef Schmid, or rather, with a 3D reconstruction of Dr. Josef Schmid (and his teammates). The event, which took place on October 8, 2021, was a first world: the first handshake exchanged for the holoportation from Earth to space.
The holoport, so called by Microsoft, which is behind the technology, is to make a 3D capture (via multiple cameras) of a person and transmit the captured images live and in real time to one or more equipped interlocutors with mixed reality team. , such as Microsoft HoloLens: These glasses allow you to simulate holograms and integrate them into the user’s field of vision. Thus, the latter can see, hear, and even interact with the distant interlocutor as if they were both in the same room.
Microsoft has been working on this technology for several years, but this is the first time it has been deployed in an environment as extreme as space (and more than 400 km away!). ” It is a completely new way of human exploration, where our human entity is able to travel outside the planet. Our physical body is not there, but our human entity is there “Dr. Schmid said in a press release.
Following this first successful test, NASA plans to hold other two-way communication sessions, during which both parties will be equipped with mixed reality equipment: relatives of the astronauts may be holoported to the ISS and vice versa, the astronauts will pass for a while “virtually”. on earth. In addition to these family reunions, the technology will be used for medical and psychiatric consultations during missions, as soon as necessary; some VIPs will also be able to benefit from an extraordinary experience on board the ISS.
Towards an immersive collaboration in space
Keep in mind that this mode of communication, while already very impressive, is only in its infancy. In fact, NASA is already talking about the possibility of further promoting this immersive experience by combining holoportation with augmented reality and haptics (the perception and manipulation of objects), in order to set up a real “telementoring”.
Specifically, an instructor or engineer could be temporarily holoported aboard a spacecraft to help the crew solve a problem or make some repairs. It is true that we are still a long way from teleportation, but these projects already sound like real science fiction and could be incorporated into future deep space explorations.
As a reminder, the first electrosurgery was performed more than twenty years ago, in September 2001: a 78-year-old patient, hospitalized in Strasbourg, had successfully undergone gallbladder removal by a team. located in New York. , almost 7000 km. Since then, advances in robotics and telecommunications networks have paved the way for such interventions.
More recently, a team of Italian surgeons tested this approach via a 5G network, to perform a vocal cord operation (on a corpse, as a demonstration) 15 km away; doctors had virtual reality glasses and a haptic feedback device to control the devices remotely. Surgeons reported a delay of up to 280 milliseconds between the robot’s orders and actions during this operation, which went well.
In space, however, this latency will be a real problem: while humanity plans to go to Mars, one of the obstacles to overcome will be precisely the communication delays, which can reach 20 minutes in each direction, either for simple radio broadcasts, video streams or new technologies such as holportation.
In any case, if remote surgery is not considered in this context, holoportation will have the merit of contributing to the mental well-being of the crew. This mode of communication will make it possible to establish a more real link than life with the Earth and break the isolation. It could also be exploited on Earth, for the benefit of people working in extreme and isolated environments (in Antarctica, or on offshore oil rigs for example).