Thursday, March 27, 2008

Reach for the stars: the story that never was

Reach for the stars
In 2002, I was invited by Chris Cason, the leader of the POV-Ray development team, to work on a very special project: the creation of a computer-generated image that would be rendered on board of the International Space Station. With fellow POV-Ray artist Jaime Vives Piqueres, we designed the image according to a drastic set of specifications, then the image script and 3D models were sent to internet entrepreneur and astronaut Mark Shuttleworth (who would create the Ubuntu Linux distribution two years later) who loaded it on a laptop, turned it into a big-size image while floating in zero-gravity, and came back to Earth. The entire story is told here and there's not much more to say about the image itself.

The strangest thing, however, is that we completely failed to make that story interesting to other people. We naively believed that the concept of two (unknown) geeks managing to smuggle artwork on the ISS thanks to a "space tourist" was, if not newsworthy, at least cool enough for people to notice it, particularly in the computer graphics and open source communities. The simple fact that Chris Cason had to modify POV-Ray to accommodate zero-gravity was an interesting tidbit: how many popular software, let alone open source popular software, include special code to go to space. And of course this image remains the first one rendered in orbit.

Some folks did like the story: Zazzle, the poster company, created a special page for it. There's a page about the image in the Polish Wikipedia and once in a while a teacher wants to use the image for a school project. But otherwise, the story was lost in the flow. We submitted it several times to Slashdot, the popular "news for nerds" website that caters to open source enthusiasts, to no avail. DAZ, the company that had created the child model used in the picture, turned us down because they believed that our story was critical of the model (it wasn't). I posted it to a forum dedicated to space flight and astronomy news: no answer. I wrote to people who had a special interest in space-related artwork: no answer. Outside the POV-Ray community, where a few people at least reacted to it, the story fell completely flat and wasn't picked up: it made a brief appearance in a French CG website, and, some years later, it resurfaced in a couple of posts in the Ubuntu forums when people discovered it in Mark Shuttleworth's resume, but by far and large our story was ignored by bloggers and on-line forums.

Now there are many reasons for the failure. The timing was terrible because we couldn't use the short window that was the space flight itself: the laptop with the image on it came back months later, once the flight was completely forgotten. Also, we didn't really push the story: we thought that it had legs, that it would run by itself and sort of snowball once released in the internet but, unlike the most braindead LOLCAT, it didn't. We could have spammed every open source, computer graphics, art or aerospace forum out there, but we had obvious ethical reasons for not doing so and forum users don't like being spammed in any case. Another reason is that space flights are no longer newsworthy: people don't care much about the space shuttle, the ISS or astronauts unless they end up in big fireballs. Another is that the whole concept of "rendering" a 3D image is lost on the immense majority of people who, rightfully, couldn't understand what had been done in the first place.

I don't have any regret of course. Mark got home safely, and while the image isn't the best computer rendering ever, we had fun doing it, it was an exciting project and it's still a good story to tell. It's just that we would have liked to share it with more people.



Blogger Connelly Barnes said...

I thought your "Reach for the Stars" work was pretty cool, although I only saw it on your website, which I found due to my interest in computer graphics. One of the open source news organizations should've picked this up. I could see some open source evangelist touting it as "open source rendering beats commercial rendering to space." Better luck next time.

March 27, 2008 10:41 PM  
Blogger Gilles said...

Thanks! Now let's hope that Mark Shuttleworth will book a flight for Mars in a few decades...

March 28, 2008 1:52 PM  
Blogger Will said...

Consider me another of those people who loved the story but you never heard from me about it.

I think the thing about 3DCG is that unless you're involved in its production, then that process, including the rendering, is not something you want to think about too. It's a performance art, or even magic, in that if you know too much about what's behind the scenes, it takes away some of the impact of the finished product.

From a technical standpoint not so much was really achieved. Lots of earth software runs on the computers in spacecraft all the time - the commercial Mathematica, for example. So while it might have been of note to Slashdot at the time, on a first-OSS-in-space type of note, after the event the achivement in terms of computers and technology isn't that big.

April 17, 2008 2:18 AM  
Anonymous Another Gilles said...

"… Chris Cason had to modify POV-Ray to accommodate zero-gravity …"

Maybe this is a naive question, but what was necessary to modify in POV-Ray for zero-gravity?

April 29, 2008 1:08 PM  
Blogger Gilles said...

Maybe this is a naive question, but what was necessary to modify in POV-Ray for zero-gravity?
Not a naive question. In zero-gravity hot air doesn't rise, so heat propagates differently than on Earth. As rendering is particularly CPU-intensive, regular laptop fans working in orbit may not have been able to cope with the extra heat, so Chris Cason added a "duty cycle" setting, that tells POV-Ray to only use a certain percentage of the CPU's available time. A more complete explanation is available here.

April 29, 2008 2:44 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home