Sunday, September 22, 2013

I'm floating in a most peculiar way. And the stars look very different today.

So this is where I'm at with my 3D on-line virtual astrometrics laboratory:

A big sphere, modelled on the Hayden Planetarium, stuffed with visualizations of planetary and solar datasets, (middle floor) an accurate 3D orrery (top floor) and a signal processing lab (bottom floor) floating in a virtual skybox.

I don't even have proper gravity yet, it's that primitive. :-)

I've had this web page hooked up to my telescope, and used it to process astrovideo data in real-time. It's not just a pretty face.

Pretty much everything is improved. Framerates are up. Caches are in. The LEP module now only requires 5MB of download to predict the moon's position to 1 meter accuracy, and runs twice as fast. The comms framework has moved beyond bouncing chat messages from ipad to desktop, to a level which allows peer-to-peer video streaming, in theory. (From WebSockets to WebRTC.)

Actually, I seem to be in a slight project pause. This happens from time to time. Usually once all my first-round technology goals are complete, and I realize it's all going to work as well as I hoped, I get kind of stunned by the sheer scale of it. It seems to be part of the process.

Step 1 is to dream your impossible dreams. That's the easy and fun part. Technology is the science and art of making the impossible real, so set out to do something impossible, but cool.

Step 2 is to learn why it's currently impossible. It often comes down to some critical component not being available, like perfect diodes, or superconductors, or a non-exponential algorithm.

Step 3 is to look around and realize that someone created exactly that last year, or found a way to make them unnecessary. Read lots of papers and science journals.

Now you're off to the races.

Because now you're in possession of that most valuable kind of knowledge: a single true fact that 99.999% of other people still believe to be false. You know it can be done, against the prevailing common-sense.

Of course, if you discover the critical component is still impossible, well, too bad. Project over. Try again some other day.

Failure is quick and easy. You write "does not work" and move on to a different approach. It's the usual outcome. It's when it all goes right that you have to occasionally stop for breath... In my case because I didn't really plan this far ahead. I wasn't sure I'd get here.

What matters now is engaging other people in the project, hence the very literal focus on 'Player Avatars' and peer-to-peer protocols. This is where the project strays slightly from the core astronomy focus, and starts involving psychology. For example, the particular choice of avatar that you 'inhabit' can have a profound impact on your self-perception, and even your ability to learn.

For example, I'm thinking of representing all 'players' in the environment as Astronauts. One-size-fits-all generic international space-suit to start with. you may get customizable patches. Michelle had the brilliant idea of letting the suits be 'marked up' by the environment - spend a lot of time in front of the Sun, and you get tanned. That kind of thing. If you have a webcam pointed at your head, we might even be able to go around 'visors up' and see each other's real faces.

At the opposite end of the scale, imagine if, upon entering what was purported to be a Massively Multi-Scientist Online Research Environment, you were embodied in the avatar of Donald Duck. A world populated with multi coloured giant Donald Ducks. There would be an element of cognitive dissonance that would not serve the intentions of the environment.

One excellent researcher said (I paraphrase) "Avatars have a profoundly positive influence when they represent us at our best. As we wish to be."

I'm guessing if you're insanely, professionally interested in the stars, you secretly always wanted to be an astronaut. I know I did.

To this end, I've been watching documentaries on Space Suits from around the world. Even standardizing on suits has the opportunity to introduce a vast range of what I like to think of as 'virtual hats'. From homages to history, through to some rather stylish modern threads.

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