Virtual reality headset opens up immersive astronomy

Edinburgh astronomers have combined the new Oculus Rift virtual reality headset with Stellarium planetarium software to produce an exciting and immersive way to explore the sky.

The system, known as StarsightVR, was demonstrated live at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, and will soon be available as a shared group experience to anyone with a headset and an Internet connection. 

PhD researcher Alastair Bruce and his supervisor Prof. Andy Lawrence adapted the Stellarium software to create StarsightVR. Bruce saw potential for the Oculus Rift headset, which is expected to be popular in the gaming industry when it goes on sale in 2016, to be adapted for use by astronomy enthusiasts. A prototype version of the system was well received by audiences during a preview at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

"I have always loved showing the stars to people, but now I can guarantee perfect cloudless skies, and show the universe to people all round the world, while they stay in the comfort of their own homes. Some people are also simply unable to come to places like the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh or to travel to dark skies, so this technology could help them enjoy astronomy in a way that until now wasn’t possible.” Alastair Bruce, StarsightVR project leader

Online sessions

The team will very soon release a beta test version of Stellarium. This means that anybody with an Oculus Rift headset will be able to download the new software and try it out for themselves. But they see this as just the start. "We have a clear idea of the next steps in development - the things we want to add or make better before an official release - but unfortunately we have now run out of money," said Lawrence.

As well as releasing the new software and adding features to the code, Bruce and Lawrence want to use the system to run presenter-led group stargazing sessions live over the Internet. The team built changes into Stellarium so that their central version can send information to remote versions. The idea is that each user will listen to the astronomer-presenter over an audio link, while the presenter points where they need to look, adjusts day/night settings, switches constellation guiding lines on and off, and so on.

"It works beautifully. You feel like you are really outside looking at the starry sky, but it’s even better. You can see fainter stars, speed up the rotation of Earth, look at deep sky objects, and even take the ground away so you feel like you are seeing the stars from space." Prof. Andy Lawrence

The trial shows will be run through the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Trust, a charitable organisation that supports heritage and public interest in astronomy.


StarsightVR project website