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Space simulations galore

There are plenty of ways to become a virtual traveler in outer space. Second Life may be the simulation flavor of the week, and NASA may be carving out its own space there, but there’s a long history of virtual worlds that give you the feel of the final frontier.

In the wake of last week's story about NASA's involvement in virtual worlds, I received several messages offering a second opinion about Second Life, and a sampling is provided below. Some correspondents rightly pointed out that online space simulations go back to an era when games were played with stolen mainframe moments.

Virtual space adventures have come a long way since Lunar Lander. You can't go wrong with Orbiter, a free sim program that's based on the real physics of spaceflight.

Among the more recent entrants in the field is Space Station Sim, which helps you build and populate a virtual space station. One reviewer called it "a rocket-boosted title that won't break the exploration budget," while another said that trying to build an orbital outpost that passed muster resulted in "more frustration than fun." I have the program at home but haven't yet tried it out myself - so I guess it's time to start launching and find out if I have the Right Stuff.

Another recently released program, Lunar Explorer, uses actual NASA data to create a virtual moon. And if it's interplanetary travel you're interested in, the NASA World Wind project virtually offers you the solar system (as well as Earth).

For an encyclopedic rundown of space simulators, check out the compendium at Clark Lindsey's HobbySpace Log.

Here's a sampling of the messages I've received about Second Life:

Don Mitchell: "Virtual reality is a success today, but I don't think Second Life has been an especially dramatic or innovative step.  Articles in The Register suggest that Second Life is greatly exaggerated (see: 'The phony economics of Second Life').  Personally I found it to be unattractive, and like most subscribers, I left after a couple hours and never returned.

"There have been many high-profile but unsuccessful approaches to Virtual

Reality: the VRML standard, head mounted displays, SIMNET, and a variety of failed 3-D social worlds before Second Life.  The true pioneers of Virtual Reality have been the inventors of computer games.

"Text-based multiplayer games (MUDs) showed that large communities could be built online, and that immersion in virtual reality is mostly a function of the user's mind.  Brilliant software developers like John Carmack ('Quake') and Tim Sweeney ('Unreal') developed efficient techniques for displaying complex 3-D worlds on the PC.  And products like Everquest and World of Warcraft were among the first really successful and compelling examples of multiuser 3-D virtual reality.

"Computer games have driven the high-speed computing and graphics technology of the PC and game consoles.  Along with motion-picture special effects, games are the most economically important application of 3D graphics thus far."

One correspondent dwelled on Second Life's dark side, which I admit I steered clear of during my SL sojourn as Boole Allen:

Tyrel (referring to Second Life and NASA): "Seeing those two phrases together bring tears to my eyes. Second Life is an abomination, explicitly showing all that is wrong with the Internet bundled into a package of pornography and sick fetishes. How the multitudes of reporters somehow don't see the sick sides of Second Life and see it worthy of any sort of reporting is beyond me. (If you want to be 'enlightened' to the true sickness of Second Life, visit somethingawful.com's Second Life Safari).

"What also makes me furious is that programs professionally written in lieu of space simulations barely get the gratification they deserve (such as this masterpiece of space flight simulation) ... while these poorly written, memory leak-ridden, crap programs with hardly enough physics actually programmed into the engine to make a ball bounce partially realistically get front-page articles on major Web sites. This shows that true journalistic research seems to be a thing of the past, or the highest bidder gets the front-page advertisement."

Another correspondent, however, saw a lot of things to praise in Second Life, and his reference to human modification reminded me of our series on the future of evolution

Maelstrom Baphomet: "...You are so fascinated with what we do with our environments in the virtual world that you haven't seen the most significant frontier; what we do with our bodies. If the avatars on this game are any hint at what is coming when men master genetics, I don't think the world will belong to what we constitute as humanity in about 1000 years. Instead, you will have a highly modified and modular intelligent life form. ...

"I'll show you places (PG) where dragons roam free and life cycles of their generations are determined by the sun. And we're not talking about human sized dragons.. we're talking about avatars 2-5 times the size of the default avatar in SL. They're built around primative objects that would normally be clothing for the body. Example, a hat is a head.

"Daryth Kennedy is the most dominant artist on the sims in question. She's a longtime friend. I came to her the first night I joined SL in 2005, and I wanted to bring one of my characters to life.  I provided her a picture and she helped me modify her other dragons to create a dragon we called the Maelstrom Dragon. It came packed in a nice little egg you can lay on the ground and grab the contents from. Now the eggs just pass you a pre-organized folder with your avatar and extras. The Maelstrom Dragon contributed to the later creation of the storm dragon, and the character is recognized as the grandfather of the species in a creative sense. The storm was redesigned to a far more aesthetic pure 3-D format with a much brawnier appearance. It now exists in three formats. Hatchling, Wyrmling, and Adult officially. Players, such as myself, have modified them to humanoid variants. I actually find it quite relieving to be something other than human when the opportunity presents itself - as that's what I do every day, be human. There's also a lot of gizmos and trinkets that can be collected and assembled through out SL that can lend an air of magic to the dragons, making them all the more fantasy come to life.

"What people fail to understand is that SL is not virtual reality. It is reality existing in a different state. It's still there, it's just comprised of electrons on a spinning disk, versus atoms on a spinning globe such as humanity is. The characters have souls, it's the souls of the players, giving the creatures on that world life and taking upon themselves a form reflective of their creativity. I am a Christian, and interestingly enough I find this a demonstration of a verse from Genesis where God creates man in his own image. But what is the image of God? God is all powerful, he can make himself whatever he pleases to be ... and true to the script, in this Second Life ... man makes himself in his own image, the manipulable one given by God."

For more about Second Life's religious angle, you'll want to check out today's story in USA Today about the virtual holy season. And if you want to weigh in with your own comments - about space simulations, or about good and evil in virtual worlds - feel free.