Return to Blue Mars

The Amida Hall of the Byōdō-in Temple, Uji in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan, as recreated in Blue Mars by IDIA Labs
The Amida Hall of the Byōdō-in Temple, Uji in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan, as recreated in Blue Mars by IDIA Labs (click any image for full size)

Remember Blue Mars, the  mesh-based virtual world which arrived in open beta in 2009? Despite initially high hopes, it struggled to find an audience, either among general users or those of us familiar with the more free-form sandbox environments provided by the likes of SL. At its peak in 2010, it had attracted some 50,000 registrations , but only around one-tenth of that number were reportedly actually using the platform.

The statue of Buddha in the Amida Hall
The statue of Buddha in the Amida Hall

By January 2011, Avatar Reality, the company behind the platform, had reduced staffing by two-thirds, to just 10 people, before opting to try the mobile route with an iOS app, and then pinning their hopes on a “Lite” version for the PC and Mac which offered  users a “mixed reality” chatroom tool  utilising Google Street View. Neither of these really worked out, and in 2012, Avatar Reality granted expanded rights to the Blue Mars technology, valued at $10 million in research and development, to Ball State University for 3-D simulation and research projects outside of gaming applications.

For most people, that seemed to be the end for Blue Mars – but that isn’t actually the case. Since 2012, the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts (IDIA) Laboratories at Ball State University has undertaken a number of projects utilising the platform for a variety of educational, media and research activities as a part of their  Hybrid Design Technologies initiative.

This work has been a natural outgrowth of IDIA’s early use of Blue Mars to create the Virtual Middletown Project, a simulation of the Ball Glass factory from early 20th century Muncie, Indiana. The factory and its personnel were key factors in studies carried out by Robert and Helen Merrell in the late 1930s, which became classic sociological studies, establishing the community as a barometer of social trends in the United States.

Today, the Virtual Middletown Project remains a part of Blue Mars, accessible to anyone with the original Blue Mars Windows client, as is IDIA’s other major early Blue Mars project, a reconstruction of the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. In addition, a number of more recent historical and educational projects have been created for a range of purposes, and these all sit alongside some of the surviving original “city” builds from Blue Mars, all of which are also open to exploration by the curious.

My own curiosity about the status of Blue Mars was rekindled in early 2014, when I caught a re-run of the BBC’s The Sky At Night, which examined the ancient monument of Stonehenge as a place for prehistoric solar and lunar studies (potentially up to and including predicting eclipses. The programme featured models of Stonehenge constructed in Blue Mars by IDIA Labs in 2013, and which were subsequently used in programmes for the History Channel as well.

Stonehenge in Blue Mars during the 2014 summer soltice. The model can also be viewed from the persepective of 2700 BC and in a range of lighting conditions
Stonehenge in Blue Mars during the 2014 summer solstice.

As well as Stonehenge, Middletown and the 1915 World’s Fair, the existing IDIA catalogue includes models of Edo from the 1700s, the Mayan city of Chichen Itza; the pre-Columbian archaeological site of Izapa; Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers experimented with powered flight; the Giza Necropolis, the Apollo 15 landing site on Hadley Rille,  and so on.

All of the builds are fairly static in nature, although they can be explored, and some offer various levels of interaction, which itself comes in a variety of forms. In Edo, for example, there are various items asking visitors to CLICK ME, in order to reveal additional information within the client; elsewhere, such as in the art gallery, clicking on the displayed pictures takes you to an associated web or wiki page; elsewhere still, “transport spheres” offer the opportunity to “jump into” real-world images of the place you’re visiting.

In addition, all of the builds offered by IDIA Lab feature a HUD system, located in the bottom right corner of the screen, which in turn offers differing options, depending on the model, which may range from a pop-up, browser-like panel offering further information on the location being visited, or which may also include opportunities for setting different lighting conditions, time of day, or even views of the location, based on different dates in history.

The winter solstice, Stonehenge, 2700 BC. Note the Map buttons, lower right, which provide access to additional options and resources
The winter solstice, Stonehenge, circa 2700 BC. Note the HUD buttons, lower right, which provide access to additional options and resources

Continue reading “Return to Blue Mars”

CtrlAltStudio provides Oculus SDK 0.4.3 support

CAS-logoOn October 24th, Oculus VR released the latest software version for their SDK. Among the many updates came support for Unity Free developers (Unity versions 4.5.5 and up), and experimental support for Linux.

As a result of the release, Strachan Ofarrel (aka Dave Rowe in the physical world), has updated the Windows Alpha version of his CtrlAltStudio. The new release, version Alpha 4, issued on november 2nd, 2014, provides SDK 0.4.3,  a number of additional Rift display options and some more general updates:

  • Rift display options:
    • Dynamic prediction: adjust prediction based on latency feedback
    • Timewarp: re-project scene during distortion rendering
    • Timewarp waits: wait until the last moment to do timewarp
    • V Sync: wait for and swap buffers at monitor vertical sync
    • Low persistence: display low persistence images
    • Pixel overdrive: over-drive brightness transitions to reduce artefacts
  • Updated GPU table now includes NIVIDIA GTX 970 and 980 GPUs
  • A fix for Riftlook mouse hover target and context menu locations for in-world objects
  • A fix for Rift positioning in third person orbit camera view.
The new Rift display options can be found in Preferneces > Graphics, and are enabled by default. No restart is required on disabling / enabling any of them
The new Rift display options can be found in Preferences > Graphics, and are enabled by default. No restart is required on disabling / enabling any of them

All of the Rift display options are enabled by default in the viewer, and no restart is required when disabling / enabling them, allowing for rapid-fire experimentation. In addition, and in relation to them, Strachan provides the following advice in the release notes and blog post accompanying the release:

The “Timewarp waits” option shouldn’t really be made visible to the user, but in my testing I found that it seemed to help to be able to turn it off if rendering at significantly less than the frame rate the DK2 is set at. The variability of the frame-to-frame timing in Second Life may well be why.

The optimum settings depend on what frame rate you’re achieving and your personal preferences and sensitivities to different display behaviour: if you’re achieving the ideal of 75Hz including while turning your head then the default of all options enabled is best; otherwise you will probably want to try disabling one or more, consider configuring your Rift display to 60Hz, and possibly try enabling triple buffering in your display driver.

As with the previous ALpha releases with DK2 support, this version will install into its own directory, allowing it to be used alongside the release version (although it will obviously over-write Alpha 1 or ALpha 2, if installed). Also note that with this release:

  • There is still no support for the Rift’s with direct mode
  • The Advanced Lighting Model option in Preferences > Graphics needs to be enabled
  • The Oculus 0.4.3 runtime is required.

Related Links

Viewer release summaries: week 44

Updates for the week ending: Sunday November 2nd, 2014

This summary is published every Monday and is a list of SL viewer / client releases (official and TPV) made during the previous week. When reading it, please note:

  • It is based on my Current Viewer Releases Page, a list of all Second Life viewers and clients that are in popular use (and of which I am aware), and which are recognised as adhering to the TPV Policy. This page includes comprehensive links to download pages, blog notes, release notes, etc., as well as links to any / all reviews of specific viewers / clients made within this blog
  • By its nature, this summary presented here will always be in arrears, please refer to the Current Viewer Release Page for more up-to-date information

Official LL Viewers

  • Current Release version:, released on October 29th – formerly the HTTP pipelining viewer (release notes)
  • Release channel cohorts (See my notes on manually installing RC viewer versions if you wish to install any release candidate(s) yourself):
    • Benchmark viewer RC updated to version on October 30th  – removes reliance on the GPU table for determining the viewer’s initial graphics settings (download and release notes)
  • Project viewers:
    • Snowstorm project viewer version released on October 31st  – Japanese input; improved rendering of projectors; fixes for object editing bug when rotating and crash on exit on OSX Yosemite in full screen mode, etc (download and release notes)

LL Viewer Resources

Third-party Viewers


  • Alchemy updated to version Beta on October 27th – core: updates: LL HTTP pipelining code; legacy search implementation; world map updates; camera floater improvements, projector improvements, etc. (release notes) – my overview
  • Black Dragon updated to version on October 29th and then to version on October 31st –  core updates (both): LL HTTP pipelining code; Godrays updates; new shadow softening kernel; projector improvements, etc. (release notes)
  • CtrlAltStudio updated to version on November 2nd – core updates: updated to support Oculus SDK 0.4.3, addition of several Oculus display options (release notes)
  • Restrained Love Viewer updated to version 2.9.3 on October 30th – core updates: numerous RLV updates; inclusion of SLS Share 2 features and updated snapshot floater; LL SSA updates (download site)


  • No updates.

Mobile / Other Clients

  • No updates.

Additional TPV Resources

Related Links