NASA's Bright Ideas for Optics
Another NASA space helmet-related development in optics was virtual reality (VR) technology. VR was a huge buzz in both science and entertainment in the 1980s. At the 1986 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), NASA demonstrated a 3-D video helmet that allowed wearers to immerse themselves in a virtual reality environment. The helmet featured two small LCD TV screens from portable TVs, which were becoming popular at the time. The images changed to match the wearer's head movements. If the helmet had transparent screens, projected images could be overlaid on what the user would typically see through the visor.
Since that 1986 CES, computers have become more powerful, and VR devices went from prototype to reality. Today's VR devices are lighter-weight with better graphics. By 2004, NASA had developed VR technology that an astronaut could wear inside an orbiting vessel while controlling a robot doing repairs outside the vessel. This allowed astronauts to do repairs with human precision while avoiding the risks incurred by putting on a suit and floating in space. In addition, manufacturers like Mattel are translating that VR technology into a gaming experience [sources: Hawkins, NASA].
NASA's optics innovations have gone beyond just eyewear. For example, in 2003, Westinghouse Lighting Corporation began to sell its Eye Saver Easy Reading Light Bulb. Westinghouse developed the bulb to focus light on a work surface. This focused light improves working conditions for people suffering from macular degeneration. The technology behind the bulb came from a NASA researcher who applied his knowledge of the optics in deep space telescopes [source: NASA].
Snow skiers have also benefited from NASA's optical research. NASA needed to prevent windows in a spacecraft from fogging up prior to launch. To address this issue, NASA developed a coating for the windows consisting of detergent, oxygen-compatible oil and deionized water. Manufacturers of ski goggles obtained licenses from NASA to use the invention, allowing skiers to have clear vision while navigating the slopes [sources: NASA , Mercer].
Without NASA needing to solve the challenges of light in space, it's difficult to say what technology we'd have in eyewear, telescopes and other optical devices here on Earth. NASA's research has given us insight into eyesight we didn't have before, providing a boost to many developments in optics.
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