HTC is sending VR headsets to the ISS to help cheer up lonely astronauts

It’s part of an ongoing effort to improve mental health during lengthy space missions.

Bill Stafford/NASA

Whether it's for a tour of the International Space Station (ISS) or a battle with Darth Vader, most VR enthusiasts are looking to get off this planet and into the great beyond. HTC, however, is sending VR headsets to the ISS to give lonely astronauts something to do besides staring into the star-riddled abyss.

The company partnered up with XRHealth and engineering firm Nord Space to send HTC VIVE Focus 3 headsets to the ISS as part of an ongoing effort to improve the mental health of astronauts in the midst of long assignments on the station. These headsets are pre-loaded with unique software that has been specifically designed to meet the mental health needs of literal space cadets, so they aren’t just for playing Walkabout Mini Golf during the off hours (though that’s not a bad idea.)

The headsets feature new camera tracking tech that was specially developed and adapted to work in microgravity, including eye-tracking sensors to better assess the mental health status of astronauts. These sensors are coupled with software intended to “maintain mental health while in orbit.” The headsets have also been optimized to stabilize alignment and, as such, reduce the chances of motion sickness. Can you imagine free-floating vomit in space?

Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen will be the first ISS crew member to use the VR headset for preventative mental health care during his six-month mission as commander of the space station. HTC notes that astronauts are often isolated for “months and years at a time” while stationed in space.

This leads to the question of internet connectivity. After all, Mogensen and his fellow astronauts would likely want to connect with family and friends while wearing their brand-new VR headsets. Playing Population: One by yourself is not exactly satisfying.

The internet used to be really slow on the ISS, with speeds resembling a dial-up connection to AOL in 1995. However, recent upgrades have boosted Internet speeds to around 600 megabits-per-second (Mbps) on the station. As a comparison, the average download speed in the US is about 135 Mbps. So we’d actually be the bottleneck in this scenario, and not the astronauts. The ISS connection should allow for even the most data-hungry VR applications.

These souped-up Vive Focus 3 headsets are heading up to the space station shortly, though there’s no arrival date yet. It’s worth noting that it took some massive feats of engineering to even get these headsets to work in microgravity, as so many aspects of a VR headset depend on normal Earth gravity.