Virtual RealityApplication

VR Technology Offers Visions of a Future Colony on Mars

The Mars Home Challenge used VR Technology to design a glimpse of a possible future.

VR Technology has already given us glimpses of new world when used for gaming and film. It is also used more practically in design to let creators know what a product would look like before it’s been made. These two fields, industry and fantasy, recently merged with the Mars Home Planet Challenge.

Unfortunately, this event didn’t receive a whole lot of press, despite being an exciting look at how life on Mars might be possible as well as a stunning exhibit of the advanced VR technology that is being used to build the future.

The Mars Home Planet Challenge was a rendering challenge launched by partners HP and Nvidia, both computing giants heavily involved in the development of VR technology. Winners of the challenge received an HP Z VR Backpack powered by Nvidia.

Mars Home Planet Challenge - VR Technology
Source: HP Mars Home Planet

The challenge was for competitors to use 3D computer rendering to show what a colony of 1 million people might look like on the red planet. Entries were due in early July and the winner was announced in mid-august at the annual SIGGRAPH convention, held this year in Vancouver, Canada. Judges included representatives from HP, Nvidia, Nasa, The European Space Agency, and Dreamworks Animation.

Participants could enter into one of five categories, each competing for its own prize but naturally we’re interested in the “VR or Real Time Executable” category. 177 teams entered the competition, but the two winning teams were from India and Italy.

The team from India designed a plant that might generate energy on a future Martian colony. A video walk-through of their VR energy plant is available on YouTube.

Martian Hybrid Power Plant VR Experience
Martian Hybrid Power Plant VR Experience

The team from Italy designed plans for a full Martian colony existing at the bottom of the Marineris Trench. The team also posted various files which include concept sketches and images and notes from the design process, which give some insight into how the team used VR technology to develop their giant model.


Both teams started out by taking 3D maps of the actual surface of Mars and scaling it up to a 1:1 ratio. This gave them a huge area on which to sculpt their ideas. It also made the final product more realistic when navigated in virtual reality. Teams then designed 3D models of buildings, infrastructure, and even astronauts to populate their VR worlds.

“The amazing entries from the HP Mars Home Planet challenge give us a virtual window into what life on Mars could be like for a million members of humanity,” said judge Dr. Darlene Lim, a geobiologist and principal investigator, NASA Biologic Analog Science.

The giant models were made with the most recent version of Unreal Engine. Unreal Engine is a suite of tools made by Epic Games. Originally created for the development of first-person shooters, Unreal Engine and Epic Games are pioneering forces in the world of VR technology. Using Unreal Engine, designers can even design and build their worlds in virtual reality.

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Unreal Engine wasn’t the only VR technology involved when the projects were unveiled at SIGGRAPH. Judges and convention-goers entered into the VR experience in special Positron Voyager chairs designed for watching movies in VR, as well as HP headsets.

We might not all have special chairs to immerse us in a VR experience, or a state-of-the-art headset. However, the designers’ suite that the contestants in the Mars Home Challenge used are available to everyone.

The amazing entries from the HP Mars Home Planet challenge give us a virtual window into what life on Mars could be like for a million members of humanity.
Many of us get excited when we see the new VR technology that is becoming available, but it’s also becoming easier and easier for regular people to get in on the ground floor by designing our own VR experiences. Hopefully, seeing what people are able to do with a little creativity, will inspire you to think more about creating your own worlds. Or, at least help you appreciate the work that went into building the next world that you visit with your own VR technology.

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Jon Jaehnig
the authorJon Jaehnig
Jon Jaehnig is a freelance journalist with special interest in emerging technologies. Jon has a degree in Scientific and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University and lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you have a story suggestion for Jon, you may contact him here.