Gizmodo's NASA Is Using Red and Blue 3D Glasses to Safely Drive the Mars Rover While Working From Home says:

To safely navigate the Curiosity rover across the surface of Mars, over 120 million miles away, planners at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, rely on 3D images of the surrounding terrain snapped by the rover’s cameras and relayed back to Earth. Using gaming computers with powerful GPUs that were repurposed for tasks other than playing Fortnite, JPL scientists rely on special goggles with flickering electronic shutters that allow them to experience and explore these images of the Martian surface and its unique terrain in genuine 3D. This, in turn, makes it easier to plan the rover’s movements and missions to reduce the risk of it getting stuck, and it improves the accuracy of targeting the rover’s robotic arm and probes.

Question: What kind of hardware are we talking about here exactly? Are any parts NASA-built or at least modified, or is the system strictly a COTS gaming kit? How long have these been in use reviewing dual-camera data from rovers?


3 Answers 3


My boss had a pair loaned to him and I got to try them out briefly. The flicker wasn't noticeable much and the rendering and coordination with the image to the motion of one's head was very smooth. The images were full color, not red/blue like some old print version although they still produce and use those images routinely in science planning as well (with wearing standard red/blue filter paper glasses). I asked whether they were a commercial product or not and my boss said that they had looked at commercial sets originally but decided to have them customized to meet JPL's needs and that he had to sign a waiver saying he'd replace them if he damaged them (several thousand dollars replacement cost). I believe they were made by a contractor, not within JPL. The original purpose was to help scientists visualize the context of images more than plan navigation and driving. While they could be used for that, the maneuver planners generally don't need to rely on the 3D simulation for that work, although there is an exhaustive process that they go through in our office at Malin Space Science Systems in coordination with the JPL controllers. Overall the goggles were quite effective and I could almost believe I was looking out through a pair of wide angle binoculars rather than looking a computer generated image in an office.

The red/blue glasses have been in use since MRO days at least. The LCD custom headsets have been around for about 4-5 years I believe.

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    $\begingroup$ First-hand reports are great, +1 $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2020 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ I saw some of the LCD custom headsets as early as 2007 with the Phoenix Lander team. Being a student with the HiRISE program, they let me sneak in there once, being at the same University and closely related:-) I don't remember it being a problem, but it was pretty neat! I can't remember how it worked, but I think I looked at a projector with the image alternating blanking out, similar to how some 3d movies work. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Jul 7, 2020 at 20:58

This sort of stereo synchronizes the flicker with changes on the screen, the left eye is blocked when the right image is shown, and vice versa. It's been around for years, I used it in the 1970s to visualize protein structures on a vector display. The LCD glasses are a marked improvement over the mechanical shutters we used then, and video frame rates have gotten much better as well, making for smoother imagery.


The system being used is Hololens, by MicroSoft. It was programmed by JPL's Ops Lab. They have a video of the project, though it seems more geared towards promoting it than documenting it, here. The current state of the tech is shown in this BBC video, while this one from a couple of years earlier shows the experience of viewing the Martian surface this way, though it is with an Oculus headset and the graphics are decidedly poorer than what is claimed in the Hololens material.

  • $\begingroup$ LCD shutter glasses are a different technology than what's used in Hololens. Different systems for the same goal. $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Mar 26, 2021 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ Cool! It's great when an old-timer shows up and rescues an old question with a new and well-sourced answer! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 26, 2021 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ The question was high in the queue and I noticed it, and I'd just heard about the program during a recent Space Show program. $\endgroup$
    – kim holder
    Mar 26, 2021 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ Is there a reason that this rather high tech, complex solution was used rather than polarized glasses (where, say, the image for the left eye has the E-vector vertical and that for the right eye has the E-vector horizontal)? With matching glasses, you can see true 3D in color for at least an order of magnitude lower cost. Maybe I'm missing something. $\endgroup$
    – Vince 49
    Mar 26, 2021 at 17:38

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