A charter of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is to educate the public and inspire students. NASA hosts a Web site for the purpose of generating public awareness about the Mars Science Laboratory rover known as Curiosity. The Mars team wanted to add even greater interactivity to let people explore the new rover and to give them a realistic feeling of the rover’s scale and testing environment. NASA worked with Microsoft to create an online three-dimensional view of a full-scale model of Curiosity by using Microsoft® Photosynth™ technology and Microsoft Silverlight™, the cross-browser plug-in. Now, by using Silverlight, NASA can let the public explore the new Mars Science Laboratory and generate greater awareness about the project, while enabling people to enjoy virtual experiences that bring the universe to their desktops.
Now, with Silverlight, NASA can give people an up-close-and-personal view of Curiosity that’s different from anything offered before.
Taking people to places where most never go: that’s a real challenge for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Beyond space exploration and scientific discovery, NASA’s charter is to educate the public and inspire students. New Web technologies play a critical role in fulfilling that mandate, enabling people to enjoy virtual experiences that bring the universe to their desktops.
NASA wanted to engage people’s interest in the Mars Science Laboratory rover known as Curiosity. Developed at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, this new rover is roughly the size of a small truck and carries a bevy of scientific equipment that will expand on the work of its successful predecessor rovers, Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity. Able to travel much farther than previous rovers, Curiosity will assess whether the Martian environment ever supported microbial life.
NASA already hosts a sophisticated Web site dedicated to generating public awareness about Curiosity, where it features an impressive portfolio of still images, online videos, and links to social networking components. However, the Mars team wanted to add even greater interactivity to let people explore the new rover for themselves. They wanted to give people a realistic feeling of the rover’s scale and the actual testing environment, which is hard to do if not seeing it in person.
To take advantage of the latest interactive Web technologies, NASA worked with Microsoft to create an online three-dimensional (3-D) view of a full-scale model of Curiosity by using Microsoft® Photosynth™ technology and Microsoft Silverlight™, the cross-browser plug-in. The solution lets people easily pan and zoom to see details of the Curiosity replica situated in the JPL “Mars Yard,” a testing area designed to resemble the Martian surface.
Now, with Silverlight, NASA can give people an up-close-and-personal view of Curiosity that’s different from anything offered before. NASA achieved these unique capabilities through the lightweight Silverlight plug-in that works across both Macintosh and Windows® operating systems and on all major browsers. That capability was important to NASA, given its intent to share the excitement of discovery with as many people as possible, no matter what computer technology they may be using.
Interactive 3-D View
Instead of simply displaying discrete images of the rover, NASA uses Silverlight and Photosynth to stitch together 308 digital photos to provide a full 360-degree view of the machine and its surroundings, as shown in Figure 1. As the user clicks and drags the image, the technology detects which images are appropriate for any particular viewpoint. At the same time, when the user zooms in or out, the technology calculates the appropriate resolution. Because the technology intelligently prepares images in this way, people can easily explore detailed views of the rover without having to wait to download large amounts of image data first.
|Figure 1. The Mars Science Laboratory Silverlight project provides easy, |
intuitive access to hundreds of in-depth images.
Photosynth offers a number of controls and options, including arrows superimposed on the image that let the user pan right or left. Along the bottom of the screen, controls let people zoom in or out, play photos in a slideshow, arrange photos in tile mode, or switch to a full-screen view. Highlights on the right-hand side let users quickly locate and learn about specific components of the rover, with annotations appearing when the user moves the cursor over the thumbnail images.
Technically, the project was not difficult to produce, requiring only photos taken with a standard digital camera. A photographer took 308 photos from different angles and distances of the rover and then uploaded the photos into the online Photosynth tool, which automatically stitched them together into a 3-D panorama. The tool can process thousands of photos from a single source or multiple sources.
With Silverlight and Photosynth, NASA can let the public explore the new Mars Science Laboratory and generate greater awareness about the project. For NASA, sharing discovery with the public is key, so this fun view is slated to be the first of many—and not just in rover facilities on Earth, but perhaps in lands unknown, far beyond!
Accessibility and Ease of Use
Being accessible through Macintosh and Windows operating systems and various browsers is only one way Silverlight makes the project available to as many people as possible. Silverlight optimizes image delivery and Photosynth serves only the image data needed so that people with limited bandwidth can explore image details across thousands of megabytes worth of images. Silverlight therefore helps meet NASA’s responsibility to enable access to its digital resources for all citizens.
Unique, Engaging Experience
By giving people up-close and detailed views, Silverlight encourages discovery of such features as the popular, rock-vaporizing laser mounted on the rover Curiosity’s “head.” They can experience what it would be like to visit JPL’s Mars Yard, a unique NASA facility accessible to the public only through the Web. In NASA’s news release, Fuk Li, NASA Mars Exploration Program Manager at JPL, says: “We are making this enhanced viewing experience available from the Mars Science Laboratory project because we're eager for the public to share in the excitement that's building for this mission.”
Microsoft Silverlight is a cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in for delivering the next generation of .NET-based media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web and mobile devices. Fully supported by Visual Studio and Expression Blend, Silverlight includes major media enhancements, out-of-browser support for Web applications on the desktop, smooth streaming capabilities, browser ubiquity, GPU acceleration, and support for 3D graphics and H.264 video.
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