At the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) this past weekend, engineers from NASA showed off some of the interface technology they use to move robots and rovers around remotely – including some very familiar hardware from consumer game consoles.

The most intuitive way to control robots in real time is the Kinect sensor created for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game system,reported Winda Benedetti of NBC’s “In-Game” site. One robot with two arms called “Robonaut” is on the International Space Station; it can mimic body movements made by a person in front of the Kinect.Video game technology

Another less humanoid robot, the six-limbed and headless “All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer” (ATHLETE), can make movements based on Kinect input as well, but abstracts it a bit more. A human walking in place moves ATHLETE in a given direction, and raising one human arm makes two of ATHLETE’s appendages go up.

Engineers are also experimenting with Nintendo Wii controllers and touchscreens.

"We're trying to find easier and more natural ways to control robots," said Matt Clausen, who works in the Human Interfaces group of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Because of the 14 minutes it takes for a signal to reach Mars from Earth, recent rovers like Curiosity can’t be controlled in real time the same way. Drivers can, however, use a game interface to simulate possible routes across the Martian surface, avoiding obstacles and performing tests. Once the various drivers agree on a course of action for the day, a single set of instructions is sent to the rover.

NASA Games for Everyone

For Earthbound space aficionados, NASA has games fans can play on game consoles or computers. At PAX, an Xbox 360 game called “Mars Rover Landing” was demonstrated by Jeff Norris, manager of the Planning and Execution Systems Section at JPL. Other Red Planet-themed games that can be played right in a web browser are available at the Participate page for the Mars rover missions.

Other NASA games include Moonbase Alpha, which simulates damage to a lunar settlement that must be repaired, and Station Spacewalk, which puts players in the microgravity environment outside the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.

Tags: ATHLETE, Curiosity, kinect, mars rover, mars rover landing, mars science laboratory, moonbase alpha, msl, station spacewalk