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.
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.
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 most recent virtual reconstruction is that of the Roman Pantheon, which was opened in February 2014, and updated in May 2014 (see the video at the end of this article). This features non-player characters, HUD-based options, and a greeter bot (called Pantheon Simulatus, and who does just that – greets, nothing else. Any attempt to respond will simply be met with, “I’m afraid I don’t understand”).
The older builds – places like Venezia, Shade City and Fashion Esplanade – serve as a reminder of the excitement / hope that initially infused Blue Mars. You can even visit one of the wider hopes for Blue Mars’ commercial relevance in the form of SingTel City from Singapore Telecommunications.
Should you wish to re-acquaint yourself with Blue Mars, or are curious as to what it was about (and providing you have a Windows PC), the Blue Mars client is still available for download (note the “Lite” version doesn’t work with the Blue Mars builds). All of the available places can be explored individually, or in the company of others. Some still have games and entertainments available; the original flying game is still there (and I enjoyed it somewhat more this time than when I first tried it), but sadly the old golfing game doesn’t seem to be around still – so I tried 10-pin bowling out of curiosity. This could do with some of the rooms being re-set to allow multi-player games, but it worked well enough solo.
Both the client and the available worlds demonstrate some of the reasons why Blue Mars perhaps didn’t take off. The client is a big piece of software requiring 1.2Gb of disk space; more to the point, it isn’t entirely intuitive. Also, as all places in Blue Mars were built to controlled standards, accessing them for the first time (or after one has been updated), requires a download, which can measure up to 300Mb in size, and which has to be unpacked and installed. While the software handles all of this, it is still as grating as it was when Blue Mars was in beta.
I’m not sure how widely the Blue Mars environment is still used – the last updates appear to have been made in May 2014 and to the Roman Pantheon model, as mentioned above, and the client hasn’t been updated since 2013 (the website, still required for user registration, could also do with some TLC, frankly, even if the platform is only intended for use with IDIA projects). Nevertheless, for those wanting a trip down memory lane, Blue Mars offers an interesting diversion. For those who are especially curious (or having a very quiet day) the iOS app and the “Lite” versions can also be poked at (I didn’t bother with either as I don’t have an iOS device, and I seriously doubt anyone still uses the “Lite” version).
- Blue Mars website
- Ball State University’s IDIA Lab is granted rights to Blue Mars virtual world technology from Avatar Reality – IDIA Lab, Ball State University
- Virtual Middletown Living Museum in Blue Mars – IDIA Lab