April 19, 2022

In a major advancement for telemedicine, a digital rendering of a doctor made a house call to the International Space Station last year.

NASA flight surgeon Josef Schmid, MD, AEXA Aerospace CEO Fernando De La Pena Llaca, and their teams were on Earth when their images visited the space station through “holoportation,” a mix of “hologram” and “teleportation.”

3D models of Schmid and the others were reconstructed, compressed, and transmitted live to the space station, NASA said in a news release. European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet used a HoloLens headset to see, hear, and interact with the remote participants as if they were actually present in the same physical space, NASA said. The astronauts and the Earthbound visitors even exchanged a virtual handshake.

“This is completely new manner of human communication across vast distances,” Schmid said. “Our physical body is not there, but our human entity absolutely is there. It doesn’t matter that the space station is traveling 17,500 mph and in constant motion in orbit 250 miles above Earth, the astronaut can come back three minutes or three weeks later and with the system running, we will be there in that spot, live on the space station.”

NASA said Microsoft has been using holoportation since 2016 but “this is the first use in such an extreme and remote environment such as space.” NASA already envisions other applications, such as private medical conferences, family conferences, and VIP visits to the space station.

“Imagine you can bring the best instructor or the actual designer of a particularly complex technology right beside you wherever you might be working on it,” Schmid said. “Furthermore, we will combine augmented reality with haptics. You can work on the device together, much like two of the best surgeons working during an operation. This would put everyone at rest knowing the best team is working together on a critical piece of hardware.”

NASA said one obstacle to overcome is the delays in communications caused by signals traveling vast distances through deep space. Messages might take 20 minutes during a voyage to Mars, for instance.

NASA says there could be new applications on Earth in extreme environments such as

Antarctica, offshore oil rigs, or military operation theaters.