Jul 26, 2023 By Victoria Grdina
School of Computing graduate Matthew Bigge missed the university's commencement ceremony in May, but for a good reason: He was in Houston, Texas, spending a week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Bigge, a computer science and music major, was participating in the NASA Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students (SUITS) Artemis Student Challenge with six other University of Nebraska–Lincoln students. NASA SUITS is a software design initiative for undergraduate and graduate students across the United States to develop information displays using augmented reality (AR) devices that assist astronauts during Artemis missions to the moon.
Given the elevated physical demands of such missions, it's essential that astronauts conducting spacewalks are equipped with the technologies necessary for completing extravehicular tasks safely and successfully. SUITS device designs are intended to provide vital information through the space helmet by digitally superimposing it over a real environment.
The Nebraska SUITS team developed a Unity-based AR system for the Microsoft HoloLens called “MORTI,” which stands for “Multi-Observation and Reality Tool Interface.” MORTI will allow astronauts to monitor their biometrics, mission objectives, and navigation information, and it could also aid with use of rover controls or lunar surface sample identification.
Bigge compares MORTI to the type of screen sidebar one might see in a video game or a sci-fi movie.
“It's the same idea of that heads-up display that tells them everything they need to know and helps them on their trips out onto the surface,” Bigge said.
This summer’s trip to NASA was Bigge’s third with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Research, Engineering and Design (RED) Teams, an organization that promotes hands-on engineering through competitions and challenges. After previously participating in RED Teams’ other NASA-supported program, Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (Micro-g NExT), which challenges undergraduates to build space-exploration tools, Bigge decided to form the university’s first SUITS team last year.
“I kind of got split in between doing the physical side versus the software side. It's been cool to have the opportunity to do both and understand both disciplines,” Bigge said. “If I got a job with the contracting companies that are making this hardware and software, it’s important to understand how those other tools function and have that full perspective.”
In the fall of 2022, the SUITS team submitted their project proposal, which was one of only 10 to be accepted to this year’s challenge event. The team members spent the spring semester developing and testing MORTI at Nebraska Innovation Campus, advised by an assigned NASA program mentor and School of Computing associate professor of practice Chris Bourke.
“The students were highly self-organized and motivated,” Bourke said. “I credit the outstanding leadership of Matt who initiated the entire project and saw it through to the end. The rest of the team was also excellent and a credit to what School of Computing students can and should be.”
The SUITS students were able to use and build upon NASA-provided equipment to create their final product, which they then presented during Testing Week, held May 18-23 in Texas. According to Bourke and Bigge, the team was one of few to meet all the project requirements, which was especially noteworthy considering their team was smaller than most and comprised mostly of freshmen.
“Our SUITS team was one of two out of the 10 that had rover controls that worked completely perfectly, so that was very, very impressive for us,” Bigge said.
In addition to their presentations, students also had the chance to tour NASA facilities and speak directly with a panels of team members building mission software. Bigge said he enjoyed the experience of being a part of a NASA project as well as something bigger.
“There are only like four people who go to space, but thousands of people who make all the tools, and you get to be a part of that,” Bigge said. “Our hope is that this project is the beginning of the university's lasting place in the SUITS development community.”
Following his involvement with NASA SUITS, Bigge has landed an internship at NASA's Glenn Research Center this fall, which he’ll begin after he receives his diploma at the university’s summer commencement ceremony in August.
RED Teams is accepting new members interested in participating in 2024 challenges. For more information, visit the group’s website or Instagram and Twitter channels.