NASA Expanding Into Apps, More Video Games

When Mars rover Curiosity touched down Sunday, August 5th, it was more than a technological triumph for the space agency; it was another victory in a four-year-old social-media campaign that has expanded to Google+ Hangouts, Angry Birds and Xbox 360 Kinect games and, in the future, maybe mission-specific apps.

The space agency proved it's as adept at landing a rover on Mars as it is at entertaining a global audience, be it through a smoothly executed live-stream viewed by millions or an interactive web tool simulating the rover landing.

And as Jason Townsend, the Deputy Social Media Manager at NASA explained, it’s just the beginning as far as social-media outreach is concerned:  

“We're always looking for new opportunities to connect with new audiences and share information about our missions, programs, and people. We're always exploring where the public is, and figuring out where social media is headed next. We are on the most popular platforms — and when new ones emerge, we'll go there, too.”  

Besides hitting all the social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Flickr), NASA had a variety of interactive features made just for Curiosity. “Eyes in the Sky,” an interactive computer simulation that followed Curiosity’s descent live, was a Reddit favorite, hitting the front page of the social-news site in a thread threatening NASA with a “friendly DDoSing.”

“Eyes” wasn’t the only interactive tool created for the rover. Xbox 360 Kinect owners could also download and play the “Mars Rover Landing” game for free. "Our main goal is to bring NASA back to the living room," said Matt Clausen, the lead artist at Human Interfaces at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead artist for the Xbox game. "I grew up in the 1980s, and I watched [a] space walk on TV," explained Clausen, "and this is the first game created by NASA to go into the living room."   

In fact, NASA has been experimenting with the Xbox Kinect and Nintendo Wii controllers "to control real robots," said Clausen, because "we're looking at simpler ways to do things," including bridging the gap between NASA and the public. 

The public can expect more interactive features and games in the future, explained Townsend, as they’re in line with NASA’s quest to inspire the next generation of kids.

The most recent development is Angry Birds Space update, "Red Planet," done in time with the Mars Curiosity landing.  Townsend said NASA and Rovio worked collaboratively on the game after a joking tweet between the Rovio's Twitter account and @NASA, the Twitter account managed by Townsend.

Can we expect mission-specific smartphone apps any time soon?

“Definitely,” said Townsend. "We've got several apps in the pipeline, and we have a variety of teams working on them," he added, though he wouldn't elaborate.

Clausen, who is working on a few of those apps, said "this was all a very big experiment - which we feel has been very successful."   

As for NASA's most immediate move in social-media, "we're currently expanding on Google+, and figuring out how to do Google Hangouts," said Townsend.  

Said Michelle Viotti, the Mars public engagement manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a press release: "Because Mars exploration is fundamentally a shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible."

Curiosity's Shadow and Mount Sharp, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.