August 6th 2015 marked the third anniversary of Curiosity, the legendary Mars rover, landing on the red planet (or “landiversary” as the rover herself calls this). Though NASA already put a lot of effort into both the project itself and its accompanying PR campaign, it looks like they are still finding ways to surprise us.
The visualization team from the well-known Jet Propulsion Laboratory first used 3D capabilities of the Internet in their new project codenamed “Experience Curiosity”, which is basically an interactive three-dimensional web application created in a Mars mission setting.
After 15 seconds of loading (the second time will take just 2 seconds, thanks to browser cache), a six-wheeled handsome devil will appear in front of the visitor. The first natural instinct is to click somewhere on… the surface of Mars – and the rover majestically turns and starts on its course to the specified location (in reality, the rover’s speed is 20 times slower). While it moves, you can examine it from different angles and from any distance — the angle of the view can be changed by holding the left button and dragging your mouse, while the mouse wheel controls the zoom.
The most interesting places to visit (remember, the real Mars rover is traveling inside the Gale crater) can be selected in the left window — I personally liked taking a selfie, which happened in reality on the 868th martian day of the mission.
By the way, it is possible to control the cameras and the robotic arm manually. Also, technically inclined visitors who find the joy in looking at every part in detail will really like the learning mode – a true Wikipedia in 3D! By clicking on various machinery, I learned that the rover has three different antennas and a nuclear battery with 5 kilos of plutonium-238 dioxide, how the vehicle’s suspension and the drill work and what the chemistry laboratory is capable of. I think you would agree that for many purposes such as training and education, the active experience obtained in an interactive simulation program is much superior to video instruction.
And what is so great about it? – a sceptically-minded reader may ask. The most important feature which distinguishes this new experience from others found on NASA’s Eyes website is that no downloads and installations are required – the 3D graphics work right on a website, out of the box, in a generic web browser. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this advantage – things that were available only to hardcore gamers until recently, can now be delivered to every Internet user with ease.
Technically, the possibility to display 3D graphics on websites is achieved with a state-of-the-art technology called WebGL (Web Graphics Library), which is now actively replacing outdated Flash. As with other low-level graphics technologies such as DirectX, using WebGL requires either a middleware – a 3D engine, or highly qualified professionals who can create such engines. It appears that NASA has decided to not reinvent the wheel and thus, chosen an open source WebGL engine called Blend4Web as a basis for their app.
While I enjoyed this atmospherical, addictive web app, as a computer graphics specialist, I could not help but notice some of its shortcomings. The picture is a bit dark, even melancholic — the real photos obtained from Mars look much more lively. The rover model could be authored more accurately and its wheels should not jerk while moving. In any case, these are minor issues which can easily be corrected and I applaud and congratulate NASA with its first project in the realm of 3D Internet.
Source: “Интернет в 3D: управляем марсоходом Curiosity на сайте NASA.” Geektimes. 11 Aug. 2015.