How is your User Interface to the Solar System holding up?

Posted on Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Commenting on the following statement in a follow-up WWT post over at OgleEarth:

Some more notes: Neither Google Sky nor WWT are comparable taxonomically to Celestia. Celestia is a different beast, a 3D model of the universe that you can roam around in, much more like the industrial strength UniView shown off att ISDE5 in June 2007. Google Sky and WWT let you zoom in on a 360-degree panorama of the universe taken from just one perspective: Earth. It would certainly be nice to have a 360-degree panorama of the sky as a backdrop when roaming around the solar system, and to have Earth and Mars and the Moon rendered as accurate virtual globes inside this application, but until now neither Google nor Microsoft have betrayed any sign of building something like it. Quite possibly, that’s because there are few ads online for martian property at the moment:-)

...Avi gives a plausible (as in: worth fact-checking) reason why neither Google Earth nor WWT have indeed evolved sofar towards a 3D 'Celestia style' interface to the Solar System:

The earliest versions of Keyhole's software included a textured 3D moon and point-rendered stars, btw, as well as some basic day/night cycle. The moon could even be spun like the earth by grabbing it.

But navigating around the surface of a sphere with a 2D input device is a much more constrained problem than navigating the 3D universe -- much easier to make a UI that is intuitive for the most number of people.

That's the main reason to not include the Moon and Mars as "places you can go" (without swapping base maps).

Its pretty likely that UI considerations resulted in the overlay (swapping base maps) metaphor for displaying different celestial bodies. Celestia's UI definitely made me wanna get rid of the program all together when I first tried to use it. Horrendous interface, especially if you're used to...Google Earth. ;-)

After a while though, I got the hang of it and I was taken by the immersiveness of the experience of virtually flying from planet to planet, out to the galaxy, and back home again (earlier posts 1 and 2). I am with Avi on the issues surrounding 3D navigation design, but its also worth restating in this context a comment made by Google Earth CTO Michael Jones a while ago, paraphrasing Tjalling Koopmans (thanks for the transcript Greg):
Your perception of a thing that is a viable problem to think about is shaped by the tool you can use.

If I wanted to build a swimming pool and I had a spoon, I wouldn't think about doing it. If had a backhoe...

If we look at tools, we discover they have a life of their own. People are shaped by their tools.

Sometimes the solution to important problems ... [are] just waiting for the tool. Once this tool comes, everyone just flips in their head.

Its an interesting question to see how the UI design choices made with these early virtual globes will effect people's long-term perception of 'that place out there'. Which brings me to different topic all together that has been going around in my mind the last few weeks: evolution.

Evolution: A problem solving algorithm: (1) variation -> (2) selection -> (3) replication -> (1)...

The first week and a half here in Californie I've enjoyed reading a book I brought from the Netherlands called "Evolutionary thinking, the Influence of Darwin on our worldview" (in Dutch). Starting off with an introduction into the life and work of Charles Darwin, it describes a variety of scientific and cultural fields where evolutionary thinking has since gotten a strong foothold, like evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, antropology, language, evolution of culture, religion etc.

Ever since reading Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" I've been fascinated by the all encompassing reach of the theory of evolution and, funny how these things go, since then I'm seeing and reading about it everywhere (yep, selfish memes exist too ;-). Not only at the Dutch publisher of above book (who's house is literally scattered with 'Darwinian' books and who seems to be as much inspired by Darwin as I am), but in the fact that it is considered by many (like Daniel C. Dennett) to be the mother of all scientific theories.

Being in the space field, and trying to scope what's in store for us in this field, It makes me wonder to what extend "evolution the theory" can be applied to humankind's space endeavours (and rationales, and...why not: space agencies), and if so, what it can tell and/or teach us about the way things might develop on the long run, i.e. where might the problem solving algorithm of evolution play out when it comes to our activities in outer space.

This is a rather wide topic to get my head around, and I don't have any answers yet (saving us from an asteroid impact and Earth observation activities seem to be 2 easy candidates in evolution's 'survival of the fittest' routine), but its an intruiging topic if you ask me (e.g. what's the relation between evolution and space funding), and one I plan to spent some more time reading, thinking (and writing) about if I find the time. Cause as Eric Schmidt is fond of saying 'Don't fight the Internet' (and Google seems to be taking a nifty evolutionary approach to their business model), I think a good start for space would be: Don't fight evolution.

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