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”

Blue Mars: on the slate

Avatar Reality are causing something of a kerfuffle over their announcement to move into – and essentially exclusively- the world of mobile devices.

It’s an interesting – daring? – move to say the least, given the current size of the mobile device market (16 million worldwide). Even given the projected growth to some 50-60 million units of various descriptions by the end of the year, together with projections for faster, more capable devices such as tablets and slates – Motorola is about to launch the dual-core Xoom, already regarded by some as an “iPad” killer, and rumours circulating as to a dual-core iPad not too far down the road, while even Microsoft are moving more towards the SOC environment as well – it’s hard to see the benefits of going “purely” hand-held, as Jim Sink, the outgoing CEO of Avatar Reality states is the case.

Granted the desktop client is a hefty thing to run – those complaining about SL’s viewer performance on older machines should try to give Blue Mars a go – but it was still usable, and provided the necessary access. Even with the graphics rendered elsewhere than the client, there is still a huge amount of data to be downloaded at times, and with service provisioning and net neutrality now being revised, one has to one as to what compromises will have to be made in the future in order for a fast, efficient and accessible service to be delivered to mobile devices that isn’t going to end up costing an arm or leg – or both.

Given the overall state of flux, this is a decision that may yet come back to bite Avatar Reality, and bite them hard.

So where does this leave Second Life? Certainly, Linden Lab would be foolish to ignore the emerging market, assuming it does grow as rapidly as anticipated, both in numbers and technology. But by the same measure, abandoning the desktop altogether is something that LL should do at their peril.

If LL are going to enter the market effectively and efficiently, they’re going to have to come up with an application that works to the strengths of mobile devices and the wireless medium – and this is potentially a tall order for the company, given its inability to actually identify and understand its core market (i.e. thee and me). In doing so, they are also going to have to resist the temptation to start blindly chasing yet another perceived audience for their wares, something which seems to have been a hallmark of their meanderings over the past few years (first it was Big Business, then it was the New Users, currently it seems to be the Teenage Gamers). Of course, the danger here is what happens if Avatar Reality appear to have a modicum of success? Will LL blindly chase after them, forsaken rhyme and reason?

One would hope not. Rather, given the arrival of a new CEO and the recognition that mobile devices could be an additional string to the Second Life fiddle, one would hope that saner minds will prevail in LL and see dedicated tablet / slate / mobile device access as complementing the current Viewer access through the desktop / laptop / netbook, and not as something to outright replace these.

Such an approach would benefit all – providing LL have the wherewithal to manage it – and open Second Life to widest of all potential technology markets, rather than pushing it into what is – at least for the immediate future – something of a “niche” market – even if it is one that is emerging into something sustainable for the future.

Blue Mars – a little more

I have no idea how many people are active in the Blue Mars beta – aside from the dozen-or-so I’ve met in the Welcome area, I’ve barely seen a soul elsewhere on my travels. Nevertheless, I shall continue my explorations.

Today, skipping away from rl work, I dropped in at the two principal games that are currently in-world. The first, located at the waterfall, is a “flying” game, where you pilot some kind of flying vehicle through a series of rings. along a landscaped course. I didn’t particularly enjoy this for a number of reasons, which can be summarised as:

  • No clear indication of what you’re supposed to be doing when you arrive – while there are instructions, they are hidden within the “?” icon – usually reserved for generic BM tutorials
  • The controls are cumbersome – a mixture of using w,a,s,d, CTRL, SPACE and the mouse and the arrow keys which can easily have your fingers tying themselves in knots
  • It tened to lag (actually the first “lag” I’ve encountered in BM).

I’m sure the game is playable by those with an intuitive feel for games (where I understand w,a,s,d are common control keys), but for me, this was rather a “meh!” moment.

Of far greater fun – is the golf. This is widely used in Blue Mars advertising stills and promo work – and it is actually a lot of fun. It’s also much better thought-out than the flying game, and  – in all honesty (and remembering I am in no way a “gamer”) it is like stepping directly from Blue Mars into a quality video game.

Golfing tutorial in action
Golfing tutorial in action

On teleporting, a splash screen is displayed, offering you the option of playing one hole or three holes. You then get to choose single or multi-player. As I was (again, sadly) on my own, I went for the single player option and found myself on the tee. The screen itself is a lot more friendly – well, it should be; while I may not play golf, I at least know what the idea is, and so a golf course isn’t going to be totally alien – with a comforting button in the bottom right corner labelled TUTORIAL.

This launches a picture-in-picture tutorial guiding you through the on-screen controls, which although is very quick (a pause button would be nice), is also very informative and leaves you in command of the (straightforward) controls and the (few) keyboard options, and ready to play.

Now, I’ve already admitted I know nothing about golf ( share Mark Twain’s opinion of the game: that it is a good walk ruined), so the fact that the game automatically picks your preferred club for you left me with one less thing to get worried about and frustrated over.

This left me with the “simple” acts of aiming and shooting. The former being the (now familiar) right-key-and-drag mouse option to turn my avatar left or right, while the latter is simply achieved by selecting the strength of my swing on the “swingometer”, and then clicking the SHOOT button that pops up.

To be honest, I wasn’t aware of my own strength. For the first two or three goes I kept putting the ball totally out of bounds….causing me to step right back on the swingometer. Once I did get things in bounds, my avatar walked off across the green before arriving at my ball, complete with the preferred club (which I could change, if I wanted).

There are some nice touches in the game – the avatar takes a very natural swing to hit the ball each time, and when putting, if the ball just misses the hole, there is a frustrated stamping of one foot.


Along the way a little window in the top right records the number of goes you’ve had, while above it sits the number of goes it should take to get the ball in the hole. On my first attempt it took me *cough* eleven goes to get the ball down the hole – but the controls are intuitive enough that on my second go, I had this down to five.

On completing a hole, your avatar gives a little victory salute and if it is the end of the game, you have the option of starting over or exiting and returning to the welcome area.

As a very basic game, the golf is a good indication of possible directions BM can branch, and shows that games, etc., can be integrated into BM. The tutorial in particular demonstrates what can be achieved to assist residents (and in particular newcomers) gain better and easier understanding of where they are and what they can do – so it gets a thumbs-up from me.

Blue Mars – first looks

Few can be unaware of Blue Mars – it has been the source for speculation for a while now, and the hype machine has been working overtime to promote it on all fronts – Youtube included. For various reasons, I signed up for a Beta account (as well as applying for Content Creation info!) and – to my surprise, and after a very sh***y couple of days (my computer did a “parrot” from the Monty Python sketch of that name – no need to say any more), I found I’d been…..accepted!

Now…the thing to remember is that Blue Mars is still Beta. A lot is still being worked on. And for those familiar with Second Life and the overall ease of use of the UI (despite all the complaints) are going to find BM a little challenging.

Blue Mars UI
Blue Mars UI

For a start, the UI in BM is …. bare…. There are no visible menu options, no buttons, just a few small icons and a chat box(private instant messaging is not available as yet).

Chat appears in the chat window, which automatically appears above the chat box in the lower left corner of the screen. Scrolling on this did appear a little iffy at times, and I found myself frequently manually scrolling down to keep up with conversations. Chat also appears as a bubble above the avatar’s head…which currently cannot be turned off and is, frankly, a little annoying.

For those used to using SL, the other difference is that avatars don’t have name tags over their heads – this actually makes keeping track of who-is-who a little difficult.

The interface is clearly in a state of flux – some of the tutorial videos refer to elements of the UI that have been removed / replaced, which does make it somewhat harder to get to grips with things, given there is no actual orientation centre. Video tutorials are also potentially going to be available in-world as a picture-in-picture type thing: you click on a question mark icon in the top right of the screen and you get to see video tutorials in a new window. Currently, however, these are restricted to just one, which deals with walking.

However, while the UI is rather bare, it is also somewhat context-sensitive. Click on another avatar, for example, and you can interact with them (kiss, cuddle, shake hands, etc.), add them as a friend, and so on, click on yourself, and you’ll get a menu pertinent to your own avatar.

Movement in BM takes a little getting used to. Rather than using the cursor keys, BM uses two different approaches. In the first you rotate the camera view, a slightly clunky right-click and drag of the mouse (trackballs rule in BM!), then click on the ground were you want to go. Your avatar then moves to that point. Click far enough away, and your avatar will run. Or you can use a combination of letter keys – W(alk) with a,s,d to manoeuvre around. for those used to SL, this is going to take some getting used to as it feels uncomfortable.

Perhaps the biggest critique is that the camera doesn’t track with your avatar when in 3rd person view (or at least, I’ve not found out a way of doing so) – so if you are walking with the camera behind your avatar and make a turn left or right, you’ll end up with the camera looking at your avatar’s right or left side, requiring the camera view to be scrolled around to a more appropriate view. And if you’re used to zooming around to look at things  – you’re going to miss that in the current iteration of the BM UI.

Exploring an appartment
Exploring an apartment

Things like sitting are relatively straightforward, simply click on a chair and your avatar will walk to it and gracefully sit down. Again, with animations built into the UI, there is no need for the object itself to be heavily scripted (I assume, at least, as objects aren’t “editable” in the SL sense), and there are no poseballs or silly “sit”, “relax” or other signs hanging over cushions and chairs.

Exactly how doors work, however, is still a mystery to me….

Movement in a wider context in BM is via a familiar teleporting effect, and is initiated either via teleport devices – not all of which are obvious; coming in various forms as garden gazebos, old-style UK red telephone boxes, even objects set into stree lamps or apartment floors – or by clicking on “advertising” images for the various available regions that are displayed in the “welcome” area everyone currently appears to have to log in to. Movement between regions, however, appears to require a return to the welcome area before hopping off again to your required destination – I’ve yet to find a means of going direct from, say, the golf course to New Venice, although teleporting within a region – from a garden to an apartment, say – is possible.

As you can see from the images, the avatar is also somewhat basic – you actually set your avatar’s face from a series of presets prior to entering BM, and once set, you are largely “locked in” to the face for 3 weeks. Whether this is purely for beta purposes or whether it will be the same for the full release remains to be seen. There is a certain degree of “customisation” available, your inventory comes with a few changes of clothing and footwear, and a small range of flex-type hairstyles. Apparently, more will be added as content creators role in – we’ll have to see.

While there is currently little you can do about your avatar’s shape – the bodies all seem to be generic – or do much to alter the shape of your avatar’s head and face once in-world, there is a pallette system rather like those on graphics programs  that allows you to add make-up, although I have to admit, I’m no graphics artist, and I find that approach daunting / confusing, so quickly gave up.

Again, one of the things quickly noticeable about Blue Mars is that given bodies are customisable and faces have only limited manipulation, is that the male and female genders (no exotic lifeforms or furries as yet) looks more-or-less identical to one another. Even though racial attributes can be selected at start-up – the fact remains that all the women look to be related to one another, and the guys to one another. With the current limit of clothing, this can give the place a slightly Stepford-esque feel….

Dynamic shadows!
Dynamic shadows!

Where Blue Mars immediately impresses is in texturing and detailing. Here it is already easily on a par with SL – and in some areas exceeds it: a very nice touch, dynamic shadows are working. While you cannot tell from the still here, my shadow is moving fluidly in time with my avatar as I stand on this bridge in New Venice.

And “fluid” is the word – BM appears to be largely rendered at the “back end”, unlike SL, where all the rendering talks place on your computer. This means that once connected, everything in BM runs at much higher frame rates than SL, rezzes a lot faster and is on the whole smoother and more life-like when it comes to general movement – although there are occasional glitches and exaggerations in some movements  – but for a beta tool, it’s clear effort has gone into making things as smooth and life-like as possible.

The fluidity extends to the avatars – and while they may lack the degree of customisation one is used to seeing in SL, aside from the slightly dorky / gawky default “AO” style animations, I must say that the general animations are astounding. No crimped arms or pretzelled legs; no shoving a hand through one’s own boob to do something and no messy torso folding / twisting. Animations can be loaded by right-clicking your avatar and selecting the required animation from your “personal” menu. And they really are gorgeous (with thanks to Ravenelle for the video link).

Ambeient sounds are far superior to SL as well. You wonn’t find that awful default keening wind blowing in Blue Mars. Enter a garden and you can hear birds singing, perhaps a little music playing, water bubbling in a fountain or brook….wall on a sidewalk and your footfalls echo faintly (and nowhere near as intrusively as scripted footsteps in SL (could someone PLEASE outlaw those bloody scripts?); move onto grass an the footfall alters to something softer, and changes again when you walk on sand, where your feet leave very brief shadow-like marks, almost like indentations in the sand. Walk in water and your steps fall silent, but the water ripples around your legs with each step….and angle your camera under water, and the entire soundscape changes, almosts as if you are underwater in a swimming pool, listening to the world above.

Little Venice
New Venice

I’m not entirely certain how Blue Mars is going to develop, or quite what is going to come out of the Beta. There are huge question marks around content creation, cost, commerce, viability, etc. Exactly how it is going to be operated is interesting as well – major developers will be encouraged to create their own “platforms” (cities) to which users can teleport, each city themed according to the developer’s wishes (and potentially incorporating fees for visiting).

How user content will work is still open to debate, although Jim sink of  Avatar Reality, and the VP of business Development for BM is on record as saying:

We wholeheartedly embrace user-generated content. All of our tools are free to use and anyone can become a Blue Mars developer. But user generated content on its own won’t make Blue Mars a success. The real trick is to create a system where the very best user generated content can bubble to the top and to provide a platform where developers who create excellent content can be rewarded for their work and can be confident that piracy will be effectively managed. Managing security issues and improving our promotional features like search, ratings, and recommendations will be an ongoing focus of Avatar Reality.

Exactly how this works out could be interesting.

Right now it is a very quiet place….there are several locations available to visit, but no overall city environment, from what I can see; I’m assuming the developers are waiting for 3rd party developers to come in to develop the “city” hubs around which BM is going to operate. But what is there – after an admittedly shaky start – did impress. I’ll be hading back and looking around some more in the coming days, and may well put more thoughts down here on my findings.