SL project updates 2015 week 3/2: SBUG and TPV; texture thrashing

Salt Water; Inara Pey, December 2014, on FlickrWith Love in Her Heart, Sounds of Silence (Flickr) – blog post

The following notes are taken from the Server Beta User Group (SBUG) meeting held on Thursday, January 15th, 2015, and the TPV Developer meeting held on Friday, January  16th. A video of the latter is included at the end of the article (my thanks as always to North for recording it and providing it for embedding), and any time stamp contained within the following text refer to both it and the TPV Developer meeting.

Server Deployments – Week 3 Recap

  • There was no Main (SLS) channel deployment on Tuesday, January 13th.
  • On Wednesday, January 14th, all three RC channels received the same server maintenance package comprising: a fix for BUG-8002 “Experience Tools Allowed & Blocked experiences are lost with parcel subdivision”; crash mode fixes and avatar-related region crossing code clean-up related to “clean-up and polishing” rather than to performance improvements.

SL Viewer

The Experience Tools RC viewer was updated to version on January 15th, bringing it up to parity with the current release viewer (the HTTP pipelining release).

[00:15] There is a new maintenance release candidate viewer that is being queued-up for the viewer release channel.

Otherwise, LL viewers remain as per the download and Alternate Viewer wiki pages, and my Current Viewer Releases page.

Tool Chain

[09:52] The Lab now has both Windows and Mac versions of the viewer building successfully using the new tool chain (which among other things, used Visual Studio 2013 for Windows and xcode 6 for Mac), and may be “pretty close” to achieving the same with Linux, although that is still to be determined.

It is anticipated that project viewers using the new build process will start to appear soon, and the process gradually be applied to RC releases and the viewer release itself, but only after full regression testing has been undertaken to try to ensure there are no hidden issues remaining.

This work does potentially make it easier for the Lab to start producing 64-bit versions of the viewer, but there are currently no detailed plans for them to start doing so at this point in time.

Experience Key Tools

[01:20] The initial release of the Experience Tools is still on the horizon, with the release candidate viewer currently the only RC in the pipeline, and which has no further viewer-side changes waiting to be implemented (which doesn’t automatically mean it will be promoted to release status next). However, the Lab is still working on some back-end issues which must be fixed before the key can be turned and the capabilities formally released.

Group Chat

[01:24] The lab is continuing to push out changes intended to make group chat more robust. While happy with the overall improvements that have been made to performance in terms of reducing the noticeable amounts of group chat lag, the problems to the chat servers locking-up every so often and requiring a restart are still being worked on. Additional testing is continuing, and Oz linden indicates that the Lab aren’t about to give up on getting to the bottom of things.

Z-offset Height Adjustment

Vir Linden
Vir Linden: working on the z-offset height solution

[02:52] This is intended to provide a means of on-the-fly adjustments to be made to an avatars height above the ground / objects and which can be used whether the avatar is standing or sitting, without the need to use the current Appearance hover slider. It will work in a manner similar to the old z-offset height adjustment found in some TPVs, and will likely comprise a slider access through the avatar right-click context menu. As well as working for individual avatars, it is thought the capability will also work against thinks like couples poseballs for dancing, although this has yet to be tested.

Vir Linden, who has been working on the project reports that the capability is now to be persistent across logins on a per-account basis (so you will be able to set it for each of your accounts, and have the viewer remember the setting for those accounts, rather than having a global setting in the viewer applicable to all accounts using that viewer).

The viewer code is about to go through internal QA testing with the Lab, and the hope is that it will appear as a project viewer during week 4 (week commencing Monday 19th January). This will be available for testing the capability on Aditi (the beta grid), where a number of regions have been set-up on channel DRTSIM-274 (notably regions Hover1 and Hover2). The project viewer will be released with notes on how to use it, and people will be invited to tes it both on these regions with the necessary server-side support and on regions without the server support (and when moving between the two), with a request that any issues found are reported via the JIRA.

Assuming no major issues are found, the server-side changes are already in the queue for release onto Agni (the main grid), and the viewer code will hopefully rapidly progress to RC status as well.

[05:21] A further server-side update which is forthcoming and will assist with this testing is the avatar attribute testing fix, about which I reported in part 1 of this update.

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The Beagle had landed

An artist's impression of Beagle 2 on Mars (credit: European Space Agency)
An artist’s impression of Beagle 2 on Mars (credit: European Space Agency)

In June 2003 the European Space Agency launched a pair of vehicles to Mars. The larger of the two, an orbiter vehicle called Mars Express, is still in operation today, albeit often overlooked by the media in favour of its American cousins also in orbit around the Red Planet.  The other vehicle, piggybacking on Mars Express, was a tiny lander (quite literally, being just 39 inches across) called Beagle 2.

Designed to search for signs of life, past or present on Mars, Beagle 2 was the Mission That Almost Never Was, because at the time it was proposed, no-one outside of those wanting to build it, wanted it. And yet, even today, the science package it did eventually take to Mars is one of the most remarkable feats of science engineering put together, with capabilities that will not be repeated until NASA flies their one tonne Mars 2020 mission at the start of the next decade.

Sadly, for all its innovation and despite overcoming the odds to actually fly to Mars, Beagle 2 never achieved its goals; all contact was lost on the very day it was due to land on the Red Planet, December 25th, 2003. What happened to it remained a mystery for twelve years, but on Friday, January 16th, members of the Beagle 2 team were able to reveal that the fate of the plucky little lander was now known.

The Beagle 2 story begins in April 1997, when the European Space Agency held a meeting to discuss the possibility of flying an orbiter mission to Mars in 2003, following the failure of an earlier mission. This new mission would be called “Mars Express”, both in recognition of the exceptionally short lead-time to develop and fly it, even using instruments and systems developed for the failed mission, and for the fact that in 2003, Earth and Mars would be the closest they’ve been for some 60,000 years, allowing anything launched around the middle of that year to reach Mars in a comparatively short time.

Colin Pillinger, the man very much at the centre of Beagle 2, and who brought the mission to the public eye
Colin Pillinger, the man very much at the centre of Beagle 2, and who brought the mission to the public eye

Professor Colin Pillinger, a planetary scientist and a founder of the Open University’s prestigious Planetary Science Research Institute (since merged with the OU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy), attended the meeting together with his wife Judith, also a planetary scientist. At the time, Professor Pillinger was one of a number of scientists involved in investigating whether or not biogenic features had been discovered in a meteorite found in Antarctica, but which had originated on Mars.

This particular debate was focused on a piece of rock called ALH84001, regarded as one of the oldest pieces of the Solar System, being just over 4 billion years old, and which formed at a time when Mars was likely a warm wet planet. It had been raging for a year with no sign of abating, and Professor Pillinger had already come to the conclusion that one way to settled it would be to put a life sciences package actually on Mars.  He realised the proposed Mars Express mission presented the perfect opportunity for doing so, as did his wife. So much so, that by the time they got back to the UK, she had the perfect name for a mission designed to seek out evidence of life on Mars: Beagle 2, named for the vessel commanded by Captain Robert FitzRoy that carried Charles Darwin on his seminal voyage of discovery.

The microscopic structures revealed by a scanning electron microscope deep within a fragment of ALH84001 that suggested biogenic origins
One of the microscopic structures revealed by a scanning electron microscope deep within a fragment of ALH84001 that suggested biogenic origins

Given all of the controversy surrounding ALH84001 and the question of possible microbial life on Mars that dated back to the Viking Lander experiments of the 1990s, you’d think the ESA would jump at the opportunity to put a life sciences mission on Mars. Not so; for one thing, others also saw Mars Express as an opportunity to fly their projects to Mars and were busy lobbying. More to the point, it was held that the 6-year time frame for developing a lander mission from scratch was too short.

However, Colin Pillinger was not one to be deterred. In the UK he brought together a team from academia and industry, including Doctor Mark Sims, who was to prove pivotal in the  engineering design of the lander. With many of those involved in the nascent project initially working on it entirely in their own time, Beagle 2 rapidly developed from a series of rough designs “on the backs of beer mats”, to a proposal which, when presented to ESA managers, so impressed them, they provisionally agreed to the idea of flying a lander to Mars – but only if the UK was able to fund it. No money would be forthcoming from ESA.

Dr. Mark Sims of the University of Leiceter, who lead the engineering team responsible for Beagle 2, seen with another model of the lander (image: University of Leicester)
Dr. Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, who lead the engineering team responsible for Beagle 2, seen with another model of the lander (image: University of Leicester)

Thus began one of the most remarkable public relations exercises in annals of space history, with Beagle 2 becoming a household name in the UK, as Colin Pillinger sought to promote in on television, the radio, through newspaper and magazines, and giving public presentations. Space advocacy groups were rallied to the cause, celebrities were brought in to add their weight to things, Parliament and industry were lobbied and won over. In the end, the entire £44 million (US $70 million) was raised, with 50% coming from the UK government and the rest from the private sector.

Continue reading “The Beagle had landed”