Look Up: 100 Year Starship Screensaver by Robert Hodgin

Look Up: 100 Year Starship Screensaver by Robert Hodgin

Pick of the Week #92

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This week’s pick is ‘Look up’, a cosmic screensaver created by Robert Hodgin for the Barbarian Group and 100 Year Starship.

Hodgin is an code artist living in Brooklyn. He is a founding partner of the Barbarian Group and heads up its west coast officeHe graduated in 1998 with a degree in Sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design. Hodgin’s work ranges from simple 2D data visualizations to immersive 3D terrain simulations. He works in Java, Processing, C++, Cinder, OpenGL, and GLSL and has spoken at Eyeo Festival, Tedx, FlashForward, FITC, Flash on the Beach, OFFF, and FlashBelt.

robert hodgin
image source: Eyeo Festival

Hodgin writes, “Look Up is a project I worked on for the Barbarian Group. They are sponsors of the 100 Year Starship (100YSS) initiative headed up by Astronaut Mae Jemison.

The purpose of the 100YSS is “… to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years.” For now, this means discussing the many enormous hurdles that stand in our way, but also finding ways to get people interested in the concept and inspired by the possibilities.”

“I was asked if I wanted to make a screensaver that explored the nearest stars to our sun and I immediately said yes. I am addicted to all things space.”

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“I used the Cinder C++ framework for this project. Cinder makes it incredibly easy to compile a .saver for Mac or a .scr for the PC. The data used in this screensaver was pulled mostly from Wikipedia with some extra details coming from Sol Station.

The position of the stars was the starting point. Using the HYG database from Astronexus, I was quickly able to plot the stars as 3D points in space. The database provides the star positions as right ascension, declination and distance so I did a bit of preprocessing of the data to convert it into simple xyz coordinates. Since this project was meant to showcase the stars nearest to ours, I thought I would cull the list down by excluding any stars that were many hundreds of light years away. This brought the number of stars down to just over 75,000.

I then divided the list into three different categories: faint, bright, and main.

The faint stars are the ones that are dim and too far out to be larger part of this experience. They would be represented as low alpha GL_POINTS and they are there to just help the background seem less empty. There are 71,678 of these faint stars in this project.

The bright stars are the stars that are closer and brighter and therefore deserve extra attention when it comes time to render them. They do have dimension and are rendered as a pair of overlapping quads with gradient glow that fades in as they get closer to the camera position. There are about 3600 of these bright stars in this project.

The main stars are the ones you visit. There are 34 of these systems (many of the stars we know are actually double or triple stars so despite there being 34 systems, there are a total of 48 individual stars). These are the ones that require special treatment since they will be viewed from much shorter distances than the rest of the stars. Some of these main stars are large enough to span over half the height of the display. They should be varied enough to not feel repetitive, they should have some subtle texture on their surface, they should feature an intense glow, and most importantly, they should feel energetic. This last feature was certainly the hardest to pull off and I ended up trying out a few different methods before settling on the final effect.”

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“The scale of the radius of a star compared to the vast distances between the stars is hard to wrap one’s head around and it certainly doesn’t make for easy code. A lot of trickery (and even a bold faced lie or two) was required to make the experience seem reasonable but not too unbelievable. The cheat was to just make the stars bigger. If we left the stars at a radius that was in proportion to the distances between them, the camera would have to get really really really close to a star before it became large enough to view well. This can be quite problematic. So we just made them bigger. A better solution would be to make a camera system that transitions between zones of scale. A challenge for another day.

Another issue was the backdrop.. One of the goals with this project was to make space more inviting. The reality of space is lonely and dangerous and we wanted this screensaver to minimize the endless black void overtones and try to find a way to show space fantastically without completely deviating from reality.. I tried a couple different images of the Milky Way Galaxy but I just couldn’t find a look that I was satisfied with. I poked around on Google images for artistic representations of space and the ones that were the most visually rich were the ones that had pronounced nebula clouds in the background. I was not in the position to do real-time generative nebula effects (and honestly have never tried such a thing) so I decided to just use a photo of the Carina Nebula as the backdrop.”

“Finally, there was the issue of the journey itself. We would need to travel many millions of times faster than the speed of light to travel from star to star in 30 seconds or less. I am aware of all the cliche star-stretching-warp effects of Star Trek, Star Wars and the rest. Since our journeys would be of a much smaller distance, you wouldn’t necessarily pass any other stars on the way. For example, on the 40 trillion kilometer journey from our sun to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, you would pass by no other (known) stars. This means the star-warp effect couldn’t effectively be used. So I ended up doing something more like a dust-warp effect which is like the better known starry version but less bright. Simply put, they are speed lines. Without it, you just don’t feel like you are moving anywhere at all. I also added some subtle nebula graphics along the way so you feel like you are passing through the occasional sparse dust cloud. They help to imply forward movement.”

‘Look Up’ brings the idea of the cosmic perspective to our desktops, and as a screensaver acts as a constant reminder of our place in the universe. 100YSS site explains, “Today, people take very much for granted (but would loath to surrender) the benefits space exploration has provided right here on Earth.”

Getting people involved with the 100 Year Starship idea makes the wonder of space exploration a possibility for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.



Download the screensaver from the 100YSS site here. For a limited time, all donors to 100 Year Starship will receive a free download. Mac – OS 10.7 or later. Windows requires OpenGL 2.0.

Text from RobertHodgin.com

Robert’s website can be found here and his twitter here.

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