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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Microsoft's Hacking Mars Design Challenge

Hello! Welcome to Embrace Space! I have some very exciting news to share with you today! I am a Grand Prize Winner of the Hacking Mars Microsoft Challenge! Along with an amazing set of prizes, my team will be taking part in a trip to Seattle to check out Microsoft Studios and the HoloLens!

So, let's back up for a second and provide some context. The Hacking Mars challenge is a joint venture between Microsoft and Andy Weir, the author of The Martian.

In case you haven't heard of it, The Martian is a work of fiction, a book and major motion picture depicting the story of an astronaut who is trapped on Mars. The book started as a series of blog posts, and has since exploded in popularity among space enthusiasts. The film has a large cast of well-known actors all working together to bring American astronaut Mark Watney home. 

The Hacking Mars design challenge uses The Martian as the background, asking teams to dream up designs that can help Watney survive, thrive, and/or return from Mars. 

I first heard about the contest over a month ago, when my friend, and fellow York University alumni Matt Marshall, started asking me questions about space. He is a videogame designer and co-founder of Wayward Productions. Matt and I had spoken on numerous occasions about the space industry, video game design, and how best to bring the two fields together. For this contest, Matt had an idea as to how to help Mark Watney, and he wanted my help in bringing space engineering accuracy and design principles to the concept. Together with Nis Bojin, product designer with a PhD in Interactive Arts and Design, we came up with a concept that combined the humanity of The Martian with the engineering and user-friendly savvy required to help Watney survive.

The final product? Modular Sensors! Matt does a great job of explaining the concept here, but I would like to add to it. Modular Sensors addresses one of the key problems for Watney: Surviving on Mars. Remaining spoiler-free, Watney must use the tools and equipment he has with him in new ways in order to keep himself alive for as long as he can. He must provide for himself all the necessities of life including food, water, and air, and in order to do so, he must monitor the environmental conditions all around him.

Modular Sensors aims to provide Watney with a flexible and portable system that can be reconfigured in various ways to help with almost any situation. Perhaps Watney needs to find a leak in his habitat, he can deploy some sensors. Perhaps he needs to monitor the temperature of his food crops, he can use modular sensors. The idea is simple in its concept, and should be simple in its implementation, but having many re-configurable sensors is not something truly exploited in the space industry, yet.

On the International Space Station, there are sensors for every astronaut, piece of equipment, space station module, and experiment, but most of these do not interact. Each serves a specific function and while some of the data is cross-analysed, most of the sensors function as an independent unit. Now, there are some arguments for this separation, namely a lack of interdependency which could cause compounding errors or problems, but there are several arguments in favour of interaction of data and modularity of sensor design. These are discussed in the Modular Sensors video and I think it is a very exciting idea for enabling astronauts and mission control experts to conduct space missions safely and efficiently.

And apparently Andy Weir, author of The Martian, and the Microsoft Design team agreed because our team was chosen as the Grand Prize Winners! We Skyped with Andy, who told us the news, and you can check that out here! I was not able to join in person for the call, so I joined via my own Skype call, in a process Matt called, "hacking Earth", haha!

So, what did we win? Well, it really is quite incredible! Each of us has won an Xbox One, a Microsoft Surface 3 computer, a Microsoft Band, some extra Microsoft/Martian merchandise, and most amazingly, a trip to Seattle to tour Microsoft Studios and check out the HoloLens! (Seriously, check that website out, the HoloLens is very cool! It basically allows you to overlay holograms onto the world around you, it's every sci-fi enthusiast's dream!)  

As the date of the trip approaches, I grow more and more excited! Each part of this process has been very amazing, but it just keeps getting better and better. If interested, stay tuned for future updates!

And thanks for reading!

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