High Fidelity: into the solar system and STEM grant recipients

HF-logoI’m rather into space and astronomy – that much should be obvious from my Space Sunday reports, and coverage of mission like the Curiosity rover, astronomical events like the transit of Venus and so on.

So when High Fidelity posted news on the 2015 summer intern project, and the words “solar system” featured in it, my attention was grabbed. The post opens:

Hello! I’m Bridget, and I’ve been interning at High Fidelity this summer, working to build some JavaScript content in HF. As a math and computer science major, I had the opportunity to hone my programming skill set, learning from Hifi’s superb team of software engineers and design-minded innovators.

So here’s the culmination of my work this summer: a virtual orbital physics simulation that provides an immersive, interactive look at our solar system.

Bridget's solar system model correctly simulates the movement of planetary bodies around a stellar object , utilsing both Newton's and Kepler's laws, thus producing a dynamic teaching model for orbital mechanics and gravity
Bridget’s solar system model correctly simulates the movement of planetary bodies around a stellar object , utilising both Newton’s and Kepler’s laws, thus producing a dynamic teaching model for orbital mechanics and gravity – with a potential application for teaching aspect of physical cosmology

The goal of Bridget’s project is to demonstrate what can be built using JavaScript (and some C++), with a particular emphasis on building educational content in High Fidelity, and by using the solar system, she has come up with a highly innovative approach to teaching orbital mechanics – and more besides.

Essentially, she has created a model of the solar system which uses “real” gravitational physics to simulate the motion of the planets around the Sun. The planets themselves occupy orbits scaled relative to Earth, and fixed reference values are used for the orbital period, large and small body masses, and gravity. Then, a little Newtonian physics is thrown into the mix, together with a sprinkling of Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion. Thus, the scripting ensures that the planets maintain a stable orbit, while updates correct mimic each planet’s orbital trajectory around the Sun.

This generates a model that is interesting enough in itself, if somewhat simplified in nature, as Bridget notes, whilst also pointing to its potential for further use:

While the simulation exploits a somewhat simplified model, namely neglecting the elliptical nature of the planets’ orbits, it can easily be modified to account for additional factors such as the n-body problem.

In other words, there is the potential here to both refine the model in terms of orbital mechanics and planetary motion as a part of the teaching / learning process, and perhaps even dip a toe into physical cosmology.

the simulation
the simulation includes a UI which allows users to perform a number of tasks, including playing a little game and being able to zoom into the planets.

Bridget also notes:

Another fun aspect of the project was implementing UI to create possibilities for exploration and experimentation within the simulation. A panel with icons lets you:

  • Pause the simulation and show labels above each planet revealing its name and current speed
  • Zoom in on each planet
  • Play a “Satellite Game” (think Lunar Lander, but with a satellite around the earth), where you attempt to fling a satellite into stable orbit
  • Adjust gravity and/or the “reference” period, and see what happens!

Bridget’s work marks the second time a summer intern has reported on working at High Fidelity during the summer hiatus. In 2014, Chris Collins chatted to the (then) 17-year-old Paloma Palmer, a high School student also honing her coding skills. She focused on coding voxels to respond directly to volume inputs over a microphone in real-time. You can see her discussion with Chris on the HiFi YouTube channel.

Staying with education, and following on from my coverage of High Fidelity’s STEM VR challenge, Ryan Kampf announced the first of the grant recipients on Friday, August 14th.

The VR challenge invited educators, be they individuals or groups, to take up the STEM VR Challenge, to submit proposals for educational content in High Fidelity which meets the criteria set-out in the Challenge website, namely that the content is:

  • HMD (e.g. Oculus Rift) featured
  • High school age appropriate
  • STEM focused
  • Social (can be experienced by >3 people together).

On offer were up to three grants of US $5,000 each for recipients to further develop their ideas.

In his  announcement Ryan indicated that two recipients for grants had been selected from submissions: the TCaRs VR Challenge and Planet Drop VR.

Both use game mechanics, with TCaRs (Teaching Coding – a Racing simulation) enabling users get to interact with and customise their racing cars using JavaScript, while Planet Drop places players into an alien planet environment which they must explore through “cooperative asymmetrical gaming”. Each has highly specialised information, based on their chosen STEM field and provided to them via a game HUD, and the aim is for them to work together, sharing the information they receive as quickly and effectively as possible to allow the team to solve challenges and advance through a story arc of increasingly impressive accomplishments.

Conceptual illustration of the "Mech Pods" the players in Planet Drop will use to explore their alien environment
Conceptual illustration of the “Mech Pods” the players in Planet Drop will use to explore their alien environment

Congratulations to Bridget on her summer intern project (the script is available for those wishing to use it), and to the STEM VR challenge recipients.