The Rift and the hype

Ever since LL announced they were actively working on integrating Oculus Rift into Second Life, there has been a lot of upbeat blogging and speculation as to what it will do / mean for the platform. Reading some of the more enthusiastic posts on the subject, it’s hard not to escape the feeling that we’re apparently standing on the edge of a new age in virtual worlds interaction, and that Oculus Rift is going to bring new depth, new meaning (and new users) to Second Life.

Not all agree with the upbeat messages surrounding the headset and SL. Coinciding with the appearance of a photo showing the Lab’s CEO trying-out the headset, Mona Eberhardt and Will Burns each blogged on the Oculus Rift and some of the factors which could limit its wider use with SL. Both of them raise some valid points, and while I don’t agree with all their arguments, they do present food for thought.

Rod Humble tries out Oculus Rift in a photo released on July 18th
Rod Humble tries out Oculus Rift in a photo released on July 18th, 2013

Oculus Rift is a first-person experience, and this could immediately limit its appeal. The problem here is not so much interacting with the UI or in-world objects – the UI can be updated to handle such shortfalls; some TPVs already allow far greater access to the UI view and to in-world objects than the official viewer when using the first-person (aka Mouselook). Firestorm, for example, presents users with the toolbar buttons in Mouselook which can then be used to display and interact with various UI elements, and it also allows right-click/menu interactions with in-world objects. Ergo, it’s not exactly that hard to re-work things to make them more accessible when using something like Oculus Rift. Similarly, the  upcoming updated / new experience tools could also provide the means for better interactions with  in-world objects such as teleport portals.

Rather, the problem is that most people seem to intrinsically prefer the third-person view, with the greater freedom (e.g. camera movement, etc.) it presents for the vast majority of their in-world interactions and experiences. Coupled with the price tag for the headset (something I’ll return to in a moment), this could possibly count against the Oculus Rift in terms of general use.

Then, as Mona and Will point out, there is the problem that the headset isolates the wearer from the primary means they have of interacting with other people: the keyboard. While the conversations floater can easily be displayed (CTRL-H), it still leaves the problem of actually being able to see the keyboard in order to type accurately. This leaves those wanting to use Oculus Rift either needing to become very proficient touch-typists, or they’re going to have to settle for using voice.

SL is inherently keyboard-focused for the vast majority of users
SL is inherently keyboard-focused for the vast majority of users (image courtesy of Prad Prathivi)

Will Burns points to issues of headsets and open microphones as being a problem when it comes to voice. but I tend to disagree with him. For one thing, it’s not as if a headset / microphone combination can’t be worn with the Oculus Rift. More particularly, and from the in-world meetings held in voice I routinely attend, people actually do leave their microphones open, as the barking dogs, ringing ‘phones  and the clicks of lighters being flicked in the background tend to demonstrate. No, the problem is actually more basic than that.

It’s this: since its introduction in 2007, voice tends to have been avoided by what seems to be the vast majority of SL users. Many simply will not use it, period. So if voice is seen as the means for person/person interactions when using Oculus Rift, then it is quite likely to further marginalize take-up with the headset, no matter what the promise of Exciting New Things it might bring.

In his piece, Will also points to the limitation of the headset when trying to perform tasks such as building. Such critiques might appear to be unjustly harsh and leave people saying, “Well yes, but Oculus Rift isn’t designed to be used for everything!“. However, while such a reply is true, it actually underlines Will’s central point: that the headset is liable have niche applications in Second Life which could further limit its appeal among the wider user base.

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One kilometre and counting

CuriosityOn July 16th, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity passed the one kilometre mark (0.62 miles) on its travels around Gale Crater. The milestone came eleven months after the one-tonne rover arrived on the surface of Mars on August 5th 2012.

Since that time, Curiosity has achieved a lot; it has travelled across several terrain types, it has studied the Martian atmosphere and meteorology and probed the ground underneath it for evidence of water. It has taken samples from the surface of Mars and drilled into rocks. It has analysed samples and returned a huge amount of data to Earth, including thousands of colour, black and white and high-resolution images. It has viewed its surrounding in 3D and – most intriguing of all – it has discovered very convincing evidence that Mars was more than likely once an abode suitable for the evolution of basic life.

Coincidentally, July 17th 2013 marked the half-way point for the rover’s prime mission of one Martian year (687 day or 1.88 Earth years). As the rover’s power system has a potential operating life of fourteen years, it is more than certain that, barring any accidents or major systems failure in the interim, operations will be extended well beyond the prime mission time frame. In this, Curiosity will not be alone; half a world away, NASA’s rarely mentioned Opportunity rover is fast approaching the tenth anniversary of what was originally a 90 day mission.

Curiosity’s progress: from landing through to its position on Sol 344 (July 24th, 2013) The numbered dots along the line indicate the Sol number of each drive. North is up. The scale bar is 200m (656 ft). From Sol 343 to Sol 344  Curiosity drove a straight line distance of about 68.82m (225.79 ft)

More Atmospheric Analysis

As mentioned above, Curiosity has been studying the Martian atmosphere using the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments. SAM has more recently been involved in analysing rock and soil samples collected by the rover’s scoop and drilling system, so it is easy to forget that it can also “sniff” and analyse Martian air, which it did for the very first time right back at the start of the mission. Since then, SAM has continued to periodically sample the Martian atmosphere, and it has already helped in further understanding the dynamics of the atmosphere and how it may have been lost over time.

SAM is able to measure the abundances of different gases and different isotopes in the Martian atmosphere. Isotopes are variants of the same chemical element with different atomic weights due to having different numbers of neutrons. In the first set of tests carried out, SAM compared the stable isotope argon-36 with its heavier cousin, argon-38. Since then, SAM has carried out a series of comparative tests on a range of isotope drawn from the Martian atmosphere, including carbon-12 and carbon-13 and both oxygen and hydrogen isotopes.

These tests, carried out using two different instruments within SAM – the mass spectrometer and tuneable laser spectrometer – during the first 16 weeks of the mission, measured virtually identical ratios of carbon-13 to carbon-12, with the ratios again pointing to the lighter isotopes having “bled off” into space from the upper portions of Mars’ atmosphere, rather than a process of the lower atmosphere interacting with the ground.

“Getting the same result with two very different techniques increased our confidence that there’s no unknown systematic error underlying the measurements,” said Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The accuracy in these new measurements improves the basis for understanding the atmosphere’s history.”

The rate at which Mars is currently losing its atmosphere cannot be measured by Curiosity or any of the vehicles currently operating in orbit around Mars.  This will be the work of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, which is due to be launched in November 2013.

Gullies on Mars: Water or Dry Ice?

While it is accepted that Mars’ atmosphere was once dense enough to support liquid water – Curiosity itself has found unmistakable evidence for free-flowing water to have once been present in the crater – evidence has also put forward to suggest that some features imaged on Mars and associated with possible water action may have been the result of another process entirely, as explained in this interesting NASA video.

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