Lower Hutt company's virtual reality ball catches attention of Nasa

June 28, 2022
June 28, 2022
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A Lower Hutt engineer who started his business in a leaky garage has caught the attention of Nasa with his high-tech virtual reality creations.

Terry Miller's company, Eight360, has developed Nova, a virtual reality untethered ball. The user is strapped into a chair inside the ball, which can rotate 360 degrees in all directions.

Miller, an engineer, described the ball as a "virtual vehicle".

"It's a motion simulator platform that fully immerses you in another place, and it has all that motion to make you feel like you're really there."

The New Zealand Defence Force uses Nova for training exercises, such as "rollover avoidance training".

"The biggest one is the defence sector because they have a lot of big heavy equipment," Miller said. "A lot of it's dangerous and they need to practice but it's hard to recreate that in real life."

Simulating rolling a heavy truck down a hill was something staff needed to practice for, but actually rolling a truck down a hill was dangerous and expensive.

"We give you an experience that is real enough for you to develop those skills without putting you in a real situation."

Another example was a complicated training routine that involved using a Navy frigate in the middle of the ocean. The training can only be carried out once per year and is dependent on weather and availability, and "costs a bajillion" dollars.

They could now use Nova to recreate that training scenario, Miller said.

The technology has even drawn interest from Nasa.

Nasa representatives were planning a trip to New Zealand to test Nova when the world was plunged into pandemic-induced lockdowns in 2020.

"Different groups from Nasa reached out to us about potential applications," Miller said.

Examples of Nova's possible uses included training for the Artemis moon mission, Mars rover practice driving, and using it to replicate the effects of zero gravity on astronauts.

But it's not all serious. Miller and his team can also download games and use Nova to play them.

"We can download Star Wars Squadrons off Steam and we can run that - and we have, and it was awesome," he said.

They'd even run job interviews where they asked interviewees to see how well they could do shooting down another plane in a dogfighting flight simulator.

One of the things that made Nova different to other inventions was its portability. It can be loaded onto the back of a track and taken anywhere, rather than needing to be built on location.

It was also significantly cheaper than purpose-built simulators. For example, while the Nova sold for $360,000, a purpose-built NH90 naval helicopter flight simulator sold for about $40 million and wasn't portable, Miller said.

They have made seven Novas so far, and have an eighth in the works, and haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what can be done with it.

"There's so many different things that we haven't even thought of," he said.

"This started off with an idea of building an awesome piece of technology and if nothing else what we've shown is that you can start in a leaky garage in the Hutt with no money and not really a clue what you're doing and end up standing on the world stage with a piece of technology that no one's ever seen before."