NASA, Astrophysicists and Space Enthusiasts in Virtual Worlds

Wed, Apr 23, 2008


Ogle Earth – a blog that “focuses on Google Earth” published a great post on “Programming Planetariums in Second Life” last week (hat tip to Kat Lemieux also). These planetariums in SL are the work of Magnus Zeisig (Magnuz Binder) a freelance SL builder located in Stockholm, Sweden, dubbed “one of Sweden’s most talented programmers.” I acquired the 3D display of the galaxies within 500 million light years from us pictured above for my small plot of land in Second Life. Ogle Earth writes:

Second Life is not a dedicated virtual globe or virtual planetarium but a free-form three-dimensional programmable space that anyone can use to build globes and planetariums in.

This phrase, “free-form three-dimensional programmable space,” I think will end up being a mantra for me at least in the next few months. As a new crop of 3D chat rooms emerges, like Vivaty, pointing out the difference between a 3D chat and “free-form three-dimensional programmable space” like Second Life, OpenSim, realXtend and HiPiHi (now in public beta – see my interview with Xu Hui, CEO of HiPiHi, here) may become a regular task. While I look forward to inviting Facebook friends to see photos and videos into my Vivaty scene, this will not be “3D life such as you’d find in Second Life” as some blogs have proclaimed.

“Exploring The Heavens on Earth”

NASA Explorer Sim in SL

“Exploring the Heavens on Earth” comes from Jeanne Holm’s (NASA) talk title. She will be presenting at the Federal Virtual Worlds Expo: Implementing the Future, on April 24th (see my previous post). Last week I spent some time “exploring the heavens on earth” in Second Life with Erika Vick a second generation NASA contractor who has been with NASA almost 18 years. Erica now works in NASA HQ Strategic Communications. She is Universa Vanalten in Second Life (in the picture above we are in the Moon Rover on NASA’s CoLab sim in SL. The other NASA sim in Second Life, Explorer Island, was created by the visionary from NASA Jet Burns). But as Universa explained most of the NASA content in SL is contributed by people outside NASA. I asked Universa how NASA’s involvement in Second Life was going.

I have been in SL for about a year now and wanted to use SL for Agency purposes….. it has been slow building support for this but now its going like gangbusters.

We’re going to be doing a mixed reality event for the NASA Future Forum in San Jose CA on May 14th


Universa also updated me on the Office of Education Distance Learning group’s rfi (request for information) to get feedback about developing an MMORPG around NASA missions which has now turned into a request for proposals and a controversy in the blogosphere about the level of support NASA will offer developers (see here and here). Robert Rice attended the NASA MMORPG Workshop held on Monday of this week at the BWI Marriot and says that “Slashdot, Gamasutra, Second Life Herald and even Wired are all wrong” re their interpretation of NASA’s role (or lack of role!) as a partner in the project. Robert Rice writes:

there is a pretty solid opportunity here for any smart developer that can put together an interesting proposal and find some funding for it. NASA hinted at a few sources that might consider forming a consortium and providing funding, but as I said before, half of the audience stopped paying attention after “NASA will not provide the partner any funding

I think Robert is on the right track! You can check out NASA’s RFP here.

Universa said this to me concerning NASA’s position re funding proposals:

We got 186 responses…much more than expected. Our Administrator for Office of Education totally has the vision for virtutal worlds. There is going to be a Request for Proposals go out soon to follow up on the rfi NASA doesn’t have the money to develop the MMORPG. So the first question is does anyone want to take this on. The fact that we got 186 responses sounds like yes. NASA will provide content experts to consult, and whatever resources we can bring to the table.

Robert also mentioned that the attendee list for the workshop is supposed to be published. He notes: “Almost everyone there wanted to know who *else* was there (to gauge the competition maybe?). It will be posted on the NASA MMO page.”

International Space Station


Image above: A camera aboard the International Space Station captured this image of the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft shortly after undocking. Credit: NASA TV<

I posted here about my visit to the awesome replica of the International Space Station in Second Life built by Illusion Factory. And how Piet Hut (see more about Piet’s latest Second Life adventures below!) brought his friend, astronaut Ed Lu, into Second Life to visit the International Space Station in Second Life. Ed Lu lived in the real one for a half a year in 2003!

I have become totally hooked on NASA TV lately, and particularly, I have been enjoying some of the events that have been streamed into in Second Life, including the annoucement of the latest Google Lunar X entrants, and The Stephen Hawking Lecture.

Virtual Worlds Astrophysics Group

On April 4, Dr. Rob Knop (a.k.a Prospero Linden a.k.a Prospero Frobozz) gave a talk titled “The Power of the Dark Side: How Dark Matter and Dark Energy dominate our Universe.” Dr. Knop was on the team that discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe (picture and quote from the Scilands blog).

This is the first in a series of monthly talks organized by the Meta-Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA). They are to be held on the first Friday of every month.

Also from the Scilands blog an announcement for:

Star Simulations School

Learn about software for simulating stars, star clusters and galaxies. Organized by Piet Hut from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Aimed at anyone with a serious interest in astronomy and computer simulations of stars and galaxies. The main idea is to provide guidance for those who are interested in learning to use and/or write software for astronomical simulations, on all levels.

Examples of approaches and packages that we will discuss can be found on the following web sites:

When: The third Friday of every month at 8:00 AM Pacific Time Where: In the virtual world Second Life, at the ISM Workshop room:

The first class will be on Friday, April 18 polling whoever attends to see what their wishes are and then in May starting to offer workshops accordingly.

Optimizing A Free Form 3D Programmable Space

Sidewinder Linden Gives a Fireside Chat

The optimization of Second Life as general purpose simulation platform was eloquently explained at a Fireside Chat with Sidewinder Linden about the Havok4 Physics Engine organized by the International Society for Technology in Education. Here is ashort extract from the one hour talk.

One of the realities of a world such as Second Life is that it is a general purpose simulation. It is not optimized for detailed, high accuracy (very high frame rate) calculation of object dynamics. It’s instead optimized to handle things like “not falling over when people dump 1000 random shapes in a region from 100m in the air” and having reasonable dynamics with a scripting language that allows you to build interesting things.

Now that’s not to say you can’t do real simulation, but it is not really a substitute for high precision simulation. With that all said… you can build things that are visually compelling and illustrate points, with low effort and ‘reasonable” realism.

An analogy I’d draw is to the build tools themselves [Sidewinder Linden comes from a CAD background...]. When I look at the build tools in Second Life, I’m constantly amazed at what people build, because they are pretty basic compared to “real computer aided design” systems but they’re simple and effective.

If you think about the physics modeling in the same way, you might find that you can build many interesting things that are visually compelling and satisfy the teaching objectives of understanding without necessarily having the “smooth like butter” or “high precision” of a “heavy physics simulator” (which by the way you’ll spend many moons programming in c++ to do even the basics :)

This is the kind of thing I hear from folks building physics-based projects in second life – does this general philosophy work for the type of education that you do, or is precision simulation “the only and right way” to get the points across in your environments?

Exploratorium in Second Life

“What can a museum do in a virtual world that would be difficult—or impossible—to do in the real world?” Exploratorium media creators and educators have been exploring this question by experimenting in Second Life (see the Exploratorium in Second Life blog for details).

The screenshot below is from Destination Mars – A Meteor Impact Simulation on the Surface of Mars

Project Director: Patio Plasma
Model Building & Scripting: Emileigh Starbrook
Particle Systems Scripting: Debbie Trilling

Teleport to the Destination Mars viewing area and:

“Experience a scale model of a Martian asteroid impact. The model crater is 50 m in diamter and the model runs in slow motion at 1/10th the speed of an actual event.”

Watch a machinima* of the Destination Mars simulation.

In another mix of real and virtual reality, the Exploratorium team “streamed an entire rare transit of the planet Mercury live from telescopes at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Kitt Peak, Arizona, into the International Spaceflight Museum site in SL.”

categories: Linden Lab, Metaverse, Mixed Reality, open metaverse, Second Life, social gaming, Virtual Worlds, Web 2.0, Web 3D, Web3.D, World 2.0
tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

0 Comments For This Post

1 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. NASA, Astrophysicists and Space Enthusiasts in Virtual Worlds — Computer Games Says:

    [...] programmable space that anyone can use to build globes and p lanetariums in…. source: NASA, Astrophysicists and Space Enthusiasts in Virtual Worlds, [...]

Leave a Reply