Steaming into new waters

There has been a lot of humming and hawing since the announcement of SL’s forthcoming dip into the world of Steam. I passed brief comment at the news, but refrained from saying too much because a) I’m not a “gamer” and b) I’d never used Steam (although I did sign-up as a result of LL’s announcement to see what things are like for myself).

Steam client

Some of the feedback has been downright thoughtful and thought-provoking, as with Darrius Gothly’s take on things. Others have been the expected doom-laden predictions.

Sure, there is a potential for some trouble to come as a result of the link-up. Some will find temptation calling and coming into SL with the express intent to cause trouble; but I seriously doubt the amount or impact of outright griefing, will be anywhere near as bad as the doom merchants predict. What is more likely is that the vast majority of Steam users will like as not ignore the arrival of SL on their collective doorstep, either because they are too busy doing other things like knocking seven bells out of a digital foes somewhere, or because their preconceptions about SL are such that they have no interest (beyond, perhaps, poking their nose in to confirm those preconceptions).

As to those that do decide to take a leap of faith and sign-up for SL, why do people automatically assume they’ll do little than turn up and stomp all over our virtual daisies? As Darrius notes in his piece. A lot of SL users are also gamers themselves. They manage to bridge the “divide” between SL and games without issue – so why can’t people coming from the other direction do the same? Not every gamer is a hoodlum looking for the digital equivalent of a forehead to nut.

Steam is Also Opening It’s Doors

The negative bias expressed by those unhappy with the link-up seems to be born out of an assumption that Steam is all about playing games. It’s not. While games are the central emphasis, Steam is far more a community of people interested in a wide range of activities that reach beyond shooting up the next zombie or six. There are 3D modellers, content creators, machinima makers, and so on. In fact, such is the breadth of interest among users that Value, the company which owns the site, recently announced that they’ll  be launching a new “non-game” software service on Steam. In the official press release announcing the move, they state:

The Software titles coming to Steam range from creativity to productivity [my emphasis]. Many of the launch titles will take advantage of popular Steamworks features, such as easy installation, automatic updating, and the ability to save your work to your personal Steam Cloud space so your files may travel with you.

More Software titles will be added in an ongoing fashion following the September 5th launch, and developers will be welcome to submit Software titles via Steam Greenlight.

Ergo, when considering how SL will be promoted and where the appeal will lay, it’s worth remembering that there is an even chance it will not be placed within the “game” categories within Steam, but rather in the “creativity” category – something which immediately puts a different spin on how it will be perceived.

This would additionally fit with the fact that – for now at least – Second Life isn’t ready to be promoted as any kind of “game platform” (or as I prefer to term it, “game-enabling platform”). Oh, true enough, almost the entire thrust of LL’s development with the platform over the last 18 months has been to make it far more capable of supporting games and game-play environments; it doesn’t take a particularly keen observer to spot that. However, the platform isn’t there yet, not by a long shot. As such, it would be foolish for LL to push the platform as some kind of wonderful new game development tool or gameplay environment for a while.

The Needs of the Not-So-Many

I’d also tend to suggest that far from seeing the link-up with Steam as a means of trying to bring gazillions of users (“gamers” or otherwise) into SL, again as some have suggested (and others have blown raspberries at), Linden Lab are looking for something far more modest – again, at least to begin with.

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Curiosity: stretch, wriggle and roll!

This week has been perhaps the busiest to date for the MSL team, with a series of milestones for the project being reached one after another which pretty much complete the initial characterisation phase of the mission (phases 1a and 1b). These have included the first firings of the rover’s laser system, an initial stretching of the instrument-laden robot arm and Curiosity’s first drive.


On Sol 13 (19th August), the mission team carried out the first test firings of the ChemCam laser at a surface object. The inaugural target was a small rock some 7 centimetres (3 inches) across which scientists christened “Coronation” to mark the event, but which was previously designated N165. It had been selected as it presented a relatively flat surface to the rover.

The test firing lasted some 10 seconds, during which the rock was struck by 30 pulses from the laser system, each pulse delivering more than a million watts of power for about five billionths of a second to a tiny spot on the surface of the rock, vaporising it into plasma. Light from the plasma was captured by ChemCam’s telescope and fed via fibre-optics to the rover’s three spectrometers for analysis.

A composite image of the test firing. The background image is from Curiosity’s Navcam, showing N165. The two inset images are from ChemCam’s Remote Micro Imager (RMI)

The results were far better than anticipated, prompting ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, France, to comment, “It’s surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio. It’s so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years.”

This was followed-up with a further series of firings on Sol 16 at some of the rocks exposed by the motors of the Descent Stage as it hovered in “skycrane” mode to lower the rover onto the surface of Gale Crater. Here the laser was fired some 50 times at three targets in the exposed rocks, which were also photographed by ChemCam’s RMI.

Images from ChemCam’s RMI showing a laser “hit” on Sol 16. The main image shows the rocks roughly 6 metres from the rover. The inset is  a composite “before” and “after” image of a laser strike. It shows an area on the rock 2.5 sq cm in size. RMI can resolve details as small as 0.5 to 0.6 millimetres


On Sol 14 Curiosity finally got to give her arm a bit of a stretch. The 2.1-metre (7 foot) long arm includes a 60-centimetre (2 ft) diameter “hand” called the Turret, which contains a range of scientific instruments and tools essential to the mission, including a dedicated camera (the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI), a drill system, a scoop for collecting Martian soil (“fines”), and an Alpha-particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS).

In this initial manoeuvre, the arm was raised, extended and rotated to use all five of its joints prior to it being stowed once more in preparation for Curiosity’s first drive. The manoeuvre marks the first step in calibrating the arm’s movements and preparing it for science operations. Further tests of the arm and its equipment load will take place over the next several weeks, but the system is unlikely to be fully commissioned until around mid-October.

Curiosity raises its turret of equipment as the robot arm is tested (image captured by the black-and-white Navcam system)

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