The creators of Mission to Mars AR meant it to be educational, with plenty of up-to-the-minute facts and figures about Mars exploration. But don’t let that put you off. It’s also a lot of fun. And it shows how far phone-based augmented reality has progressed in the four and a half years since Pokémon Go sent millions of people out in the streets searching for imaginary creatures.
The free app, which comes out in time for next week’s landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars, is nearly identical in design to the Smithsonian Channel’s Apollo’s Moon Shot (Android, iOS), released for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 2019. In that one, you could use your phone to launch a virtual Saturn V rocket, look around inside the Apollo 11 command module, and learn about the Apollo astronauts and their machines through more than a dozen interactive experiences and videos. (Disclaimer: Although Air & Space is part of the Smithsonian, we weren’t involved in producing Mission to Mars AR.)
Immersion, the Warsaw, Poland-based studio that developed both apps with the Smithsonian Channel, has created state-of-the-art AR experiences that are both playful and practical, for clients ranging from Toyota to McDonald’s to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (who needed a quick and easy way to teach health care workers how to use protective equipment during the pandemic).
Simple augmented reality—superimposing artificial images on the real world image seen through your camera viewfinder—has taken off in shopping apps and social media in recent years. But Mission to Mars AR shows that the technology is capable of much more than just adding bunny ears or flaming sunglasses to your selfie.
The app offers seven experiences, starting with an overview of Martian geography. Spin the globe floating in front of you to inspect—or read short blurbs about—the planet’s frozen polar caps and vast canyons. Bigger screens are better for AR, so try it with an iPad or tablet if you can.
The “Portal to Mars” is probably my favorite. The first phone app of this kind that I ever saw was Rembrandt Reality, released in 2019, which let you virtually enter a 17th-century Dutch painting of a group of medical students standing around an autopsy table. I remember showing the app to everyone I could collar, entranced by the surprisingly convincing illusion of mingling with the figures in the painting and looking over their shoulders.
“Portal to Mars” is the same idea, but better. First you position the entry portal in your playing space (again, bigger is better, so doing this in your backyard is more fun than doing it in a room). When you walk through the portal, holding your phone in front of you, it looks like you’re walking into the Martian desert. The landscape fills in with detail as you walk, so you can wander pretty far. You’ll even come across a future Mars colony (apparently this is also a time portal). Look back, and in the distance there’s your living room through the open portal. It’s straight out of Harry Potter.
Then it’s time to play with NASA’s Mars rovers. Once you’ve learned about their instruments you can drive them around using a circular “joystick” you move with your finger. You have the option to drive any of NASA’s Mars rovers, past or present, and record the trip on video or stills to share.
The gamified experiences in Missions to Mars AR add a bit more challenge, but are easy to master after a couple of tries. Guide Perseverance through its “seven minutes of terror”—NASA’s now semi-official term for a Mars landing—by timing the parachute deployment and retro-rocket firing. The “Mission to Mars” module offers the most interaction. You guide the rover from rock to rock, zapping them with a laser to analyze their contents while being careful not to crash or get stuck in the sand. You can even fly the small Ingenuity helicopter stowed on Perseverance, which is sure to be one of the real mission’s highlights.
Add to all this short video clips on topics ranging from navigation to the orbiters circling Mars, another experience to launch an Atlas rocket, plus a module (called “Little Green Men”) on how Mars has been portrayed in science fiction, and there’s tons to keep you busy with Mission to Mars AR. You may even find yourself consulting it as a reference during the Perseverance mission. As the rover keeps roving over the next few years, the app developers plan to load in actual, 360-degree imagery from the landing site in Jezero Crater.
This is not your snap-a-selfie-and-send approach to AR. And it’s a milestone in how to involve the public in a space mission. Just as NASA rovers have advanced from tiny Sojourner in the 1990s to Perseverance, we’ve come a long way from just downloading Mars photos for our desktop wallpaper.