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NextGen Crew Countermeasure Software for Exploration Mission Support

Principal Investigator:
Jeevan Perera, Ph.D.

NASA Johnson Space Center

Long duration exploration missions (LDEMs) impose physiological, psychological and behavioral stress on crewmembers. Crew Countermeasure Systems (CMS) are an integral part of human spaceflight to combat these stresses. CMS includes, but is not limited to: resistive and metabolic conditioning exercise equipment, pharmacological treatments and optimized nutritional plans. Although these systems provide crew with the functional ability to control exercise prescription parameters (e.g. resistive intensity, volume, speed, etc.), previous crewmembers have described potential areas of enhancements for these systems to improve their efficacy and enjoyment. Specifically, astronauts have cited a need for these systems to implement features designed to improve crew morale, mood, motivation, crew cohesion and family ties during LDEMs. Previous research indicates training and goal setting are effective organizational interventions that increase motivation and individual performance, and promote adherence over long duration training intervals. To fulfill these needs, we have gathered an interdisciplinary team to develop and provide novel, virtual services for LDEMs and to validate the efficacy of these novel features. Our proposal evaluates three stand-alone software components, which can work in parallel, or separately. The software development effort in this proposal will create a common portal to integrate a custom software architecture with plug-ins for commercially available training environments. Specifically, we will achieve (1) a standard user software interface for exploration class exercise devices, (2) a plug-in for an instructional motion training environment, and (3) a plug-in for a commercially available social running environment providing scenic landscapes and pre-recorded interaction with family members and friends. The efficacy of these components will be evaluated through measures of adherence to an exercise prescription, usability and user friendliness of the software interface, and motivational effectiveness, among others. Furthermore, we will determine the efficacy of these features to improve performance and exercise adherence.

Technical Summary

The objective of this research is to modify, refine, and customize existing exercise software products, to offer an effective, motivational and socially engaging exercise-training experience for crewmembers assigned to LDEMs. The final product will be an integrated software suite utilizing a customized backend software architecture with a common user interface, called ‘One-Portal’. The software suite will enhance the exercise experience by increasing exercise motivation and providing entertainment and socialization with family, friends and others. Evidence suggests that exercise improves morale, mental acuity, and overall health. ‘One-Portal’ will be standardized across the main exercise devices (aerobic and anaerobic) and will incorporate a biofeedback tool that can instruct exercise technique and a feature that includes virtual environments prompting users to set and meet strength and condition goals, and train and compete with friends and families. The unique software interface will encourage adherence to exercise programs during LDEMs, provide virtual contact with family and familiar landscapes, and aim to provide an effective means of protecting against musculoskeletal and aerobic deconditioning over the course of the mission.

As missions become longer and leave Earth’s orbit, psychological countermeasures (such as real-time video conferences with family and friends) will not be available. At present, we know little about whether the inability to provide this type and level of psychological support and countermeasures currently available on the International Space Station (ISS), will affect the speed and quality of astronaut adaptation. Failure to adjust to the nuances of LDEMs can lead to decrements in performance, mood and motivation potentially compromising mission success.

Development of and testing the efficacy of using virtual technology to enhance exercise adherence and exercise performance is the focus of this proposal. Here, we outline two virtual environments, both which function as plug-ins within a new software architecture, for facilitating asynchronous communication with Earth. Previous work has demonstrated that task groups, dyads in particular, have been associated with gains in motivation through an exercise regimen. Therefore, virtual exercise partners are investigated in this proposal as a means of increasing motivation to exercise. Specifically, we have created two environments, which provide access to two types of virtual partners.

In one environment, we will create a virtual joint kinematic biofeedback tool that tracks the 3D position of 26 skeletal joints of the crewmember utilizing the Microsoft Kinect for Xbox One device (a 3D motion capture gaming console). Performing exercise through a full range of motion (ROM) is important for developing angle specific joint strength and may optimize overall muscle strength outcomes. Some literature suggest that mixed ROM training, one that combines partial and full ROM training, improves strength more effectively by incrementally permitting the use of heavier weights through the entire movement. ROM can be measured using simple instruments such as encoders, but tracking a single point such as the barbell position is limited in a multiple joint movement such as a deadlift or squat. In such exercises, the timing and coordination of the hips and knee movements are essential for the safety and efficacy of the exercise. For example, if the knee joint extends at a greater velocity than the hip, greater joint torque is placed on the spine. Utilizing the new integrated Kinect feature, we will be able to display, record and instruct the crewmember on repetition consistency in multiple joint movements reducing the incidence of injurious exercise technique.

In the second environment, we will create a digital social exercise experience. Crew will be able to watch and compete with pre-recorded caricature avatars of family and friends while they complete an exercise prescription. This tool will provide a sensory rich virtual environment, similar to an experience on Earth, to mitigate effects of social isolation, sensory deprivation and monotony.

The standardized common software will be evaluated by using a large sample of test subjects to address usability, satisfaction and efficiency with objective metrics and questionnaires. The instructional real-time tool to guide user’s exercise joint kinematics will be experimentally evaluated for effectiveness utilizing a two group design investigating whether software feedback improves exercise technique and potentially reduces the risk for injury during training session in the absence of human instruction.

Finally, utilizing a randomized controlled trial we will evaluate the effectiveness of metabolic conditioning exercise on a treadmill integrating scenic views and virtual competition and socialization to improve exercise performance, adherence, and aerobic capacity during a one-month training regimen.

Overall, we believe the integration of these new software features will enhance the CMS experience, improving psychological and physiological outcomes while reducing the risk of injury during LDEMs. The following are the specific aims of the research study.

Specific Aim 1

Streamline and enhance the capabilities of in-flight exercise software by 1) standardizing the software architecture for all exploration class exercise equipment, 2) modularizing the software for simplified integration with future and existing equipment and 3) including plug-ins connectivity for access to commercially available virtual fitness environments and analysis/feedback/instructional capabilities like the XBOX Kinect.

Specific Aim 1 will contain plans for developing the backend and frontend architecture of the ‘One-Portal’ software for its universal deployment on all current and future exercise CMS systems. This includes, but is not limited to: an ergometer, treadmill, rower or strength training hardware on the ISS or a future spacecraft like the multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV). Employing a human factors approach, we will evaluate the usability through subjective and objective measures that will assess efficiency (e.g., time to complete steps and tasks), effectiveness (e.g., time required for software proficiency, number of errors), instructional effectiveness (e.g. as measured by range of joint motion achieved) and user satisfaction (System Usability Scale [SUS]).

This approach will establish the groundwork for standardization of the proposed software architecture for all future exploration class exercise equipment. This software will be modular and include reusable interchangeable components, which ultimately decrease costs and time for maintenance, updates and/or integration with new systems. Access to virtual exercise performance plug-ins will leverage proven commercially available products to enhance the user experience, provide performance data for continued research and allow for seamless integration with instructional and social applications.

The proposed software architecture will be divided into small, independent parts, called modules. These modules can be independently created using the same programming language as the other modules and fused together to increase the functionality and interchangeability of the new exercise CMS software. These modules can also be replaced with newer modules, without disrupting the baseline functionality of the exercise CMS software. We believe a modular ‘One-Portal’ approach will have multiple benefits, these include: simple development of updates, reduced crew training with a common consistent intuitive interface, streamlined deployment of future updates to all exercise CMS devices, and the ability to integrate commercial performance trackers (heart rate monitors, blood pressure sensors, accelerometers, etc.) without requiring time consuming and costly software redesign and redevelopment.

The proposed front-end graphical user interface will contain presentation of post session summaries, individualized dashboards charting progress and achievements, simple controls for the features of each interfaced exercise CMS device and will display biometric data relating to heart rate, calories burned and much more. The front-end display will have the capability to sync goals achieved by every exercise CMS, similar to Google Fit and Apple Health, in one integrated display.

Development of ‘One-Portal’ was initiated for the Miniature Exercise Device (MED), generation 2 (MED-2) system in FY15. The MED is a prototype exercise system which is a substantially smaller and lighter than current systems and will target a subset of the exercise needs identified for crew in future spacecrafts like the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

Specific Aim 2:

Evaluate the Kinect instructional virtual environment capable of measuring and displaying kinematic parameters in real-time during resistance exercise performed throughout long-duration exploration missions (LDEMs).

Specific Aim 2 will consist of a hardware and software component. The hardware, a Microsoft Kinect, will be used to map a virtual skeleton on the volumetric point cloud gathered by a depth sensor and an infrared beam, both of which are contained inside the Kinect hardware. Using this motion capture technique, we will have a certified strength and conditioning coach set individualized ROM goals for various exercise prescriptions in 1G for each crew member. Custom code will be developed such that these goals will be displayed as flexion and extension targets for 26 joints for each crewmember when they are in 0G. Recording and charting daily increases and changes in ROM and joint kinematics. This will enable exercise personnel team to chart repetition consistency, joint angles, and other kinematic parameters to initially investigate the efficacy of a virtual trainer concept. The system will also be capable of supplementing current or future countermeasure systems as a stand alone application to continuously record and report crew exercise kinematics for post ground analysis and assessments and will take much less overhead than current marker-based video systems.

Specific Aim 3:

Test the integration of an existing virtual reality software tool for its effectiveness to improve performance in a single bout of high intensity exercise, and adherence during a one-month metabolic conditioning program.

Specific Aim 3 will be achieved utilizing a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) exercise performance fitness application that displays rich immersive landscapes and accesses pre-recorded exercise sessions from family and friends, allowing for social and competitive interaction. virtual environments and socialization techniques will be evaluated as an integrated feature to the new CMS software system.

These features will enable crew members to select daily running virtual environments with changing landscapes that match the exercise prescription provided by the astronaut strength and conditioning coaches (i.e. speed, etc). Second, the integrated features would allow crewmembers to run in a virtual environment with a visual avatar representation of family members, friends or others. We hypothesize that this will increase exercise enjoyment, adherence, and subsequently improve the physiological outcomes from countermeasure use. This specific aim will be accomplished using a randomized controlled trial in which participants will exercise 5 days per week for one month with or without this virtual reality software. In addition to exercise training, all subjects will complete a baseline and post-training test where the effect of the virtual reality, social integration software on acute high intensity exercise performance will be determined.

Earth Applications

The research focuses on both physiological and psychological countermeasures as astronauts embark on extended duration deep space exploration missions.  However, there are many earth-based applications of this exercise countermeasure research effort.  It is universally evident that exercise has tremendous health benefits, regardless of age or physical condition.  Studies have shown physical fitness can have an impact on an astronaut's ability to perform critical mission tasks which can be equatable to even the mundane tasks that all of us earthbound embark on on a daily basis.

Motivation is a large concern and a significant detractor for most individuals attempting sustained adherence to a long-term exercise program whether for improving health, rehabilitation, or other reasons.  Lifestyle modification systems that focus on physical activity to improve health and increase quality of life have had modest success so far, but are a huge potential growth area.  The commercial exercise space is rapidly growing with exercise aides to promote, motivate, socialize and track exercise goals and biometric data.  There is significant commercial interest and need in the development of systems for improving the exercise user experience, addressing motivation and socialization in unique novel ways and gaining the assistance of a virtual trainer to help with resistive training to increase exercise efficacy and reduce injury.  The research areas of this study will hopefully foster further development in practical areas with significant benefits to overall health and well being of the public.