Archive for February, 2017
What’s Coming After Alpha 20?
In Part I of our 2017 Roadmap, we talked about what we accomplished in 2016 and about our next stop, Alpha 20. We hope to release Alpha 20 in the next few months, and we’re very excited to introduce the new stellar evolution, the reworked user interface, the analytics, and a few other changes. And then it’s time to set our sights forward again to all that lies beyond Alpha 20.
Our new, dedicated VR developer, Jacob, has made good progress getting up to speed on our project and is already cranking out fixes and improvements for our VR experience. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to update the VR version, but we’re excited to bring it up to par again with the desktop version and introduce a few changes to the controls, interface, and introductory experience. If we’re lucky, this VR update may be paired with the Alpha 20 desktop update, but no promises.
Here’s what will hopefully be in our next VR update:
- Updated to Alpha 19
- Alpha 19 added some big simulation features which are currently missing in the VR version, like tidal forces, reworked explosions, new volatile effects like vaporized planets, more variety in supernovae, and greatly improved appearance and performance for particles and fragments. Alpha 19 was a huge update, and we’re excited to bring that to VR users.
- New tutorials
- One piece of feedback we see the most on our VR mode is that there’s not enough guidance, and the controls can be a little unwieldy. We’ve had some bigger ideas about redesigning the controls and interface, but these changes will be a longer project for another day. Until then, we’ve been tightening up the current controls, tweaking the interface, and adding some introductory experiences, all of which should help a lot in orienting new users and making for a smoother and more intuitive experience.
- Official Oculus Touch support
- Technically, anyone with an Oculus Rift and the Touch controllers can already play Universe Sandbox ² VR without any issue, the only noticeable difference is that the in-game controller models are Vive controllers instead of Touch. But this update will address this difference and add a few other small compatibility changes in order to officially support Touch. We also plan on adding Universe Sandbox ² VR to the official Oculus Store.
Then after this update, we’ll be looking at bigger design changes, like adding more interactive tools and accompanying custom controller models, to make the VR experience even more impressive and compelling. Below is a screenshot of some concept art for what a planet gun might look like in VR, designed by Nikita Replyanski. Please note that this is very early concept art and does not necessarily reflect what will be in Universe Sandbox ².
Alpha 21 & Beyond
This is where our list of future improvements and features becomes a little less concerned with order and time. We can’t say with much certainty which will be arriving first, or which will be bundled in this update or that update. But we can say with a lot of certainty that we’re very excited for all of these changes, and we believe each will add a new element to the Universe Sandbox ² experience. Many of these are big projects, but as mentioned in Part I of our roadmap, we hope to keep these projects less intertwined than in the past. This will hopefully allow us to roll out these changes as they’re individually ready and stick to a more frequent and regular release schedule. Please note that none of the following are guaranteed to happen in 2017, but we should see a number of them this year.
More Likely to Arrive First
- New Native (Better, Faster, Stronger Physics)
- Thomas, our lead physics developer, is once again revamping the physics system in Universe Sandbox ². You can expect better overall performance, faster simulations, and greater accuracy.
- Second Stage of Planetary Grids/Detail/Automata
- As mentioned in Part I, this isn’t a single feature, but rather a system that will open up the doors for a bunch of features that will make planets visually more detailed and responsive to interactions. The first stage was simply some movement behind the scenes, but this second stage will introduce some visible changes for users.
- This system works by increasing the spatial resolution of data. Instead of having one point of data for an object’s property, like temperature, there will now be a 2D grid of data. With temperature, for example, this means that collisions can impact values locally, so heat spreads from the impact site rather than just raising the overall temperature. This can also help with more accurate volatiles, tidal heating, tidal locking, and can also factor in elevation.
- New Sound Effects!
- We’re now working with the sound design team, A Shell in the Pit (whose credits include work on Fantastic Contraption, Parkitect, and many other great titles) to produce brand new sound effects for Universe Sandbox ². First on the list will likely be collision sound effects and user interface sounds. It’s quite the design challenge, as they’ll have to account for things like changes in the time step and sounds for which there is no real-world equivalent… what exactly should a pulsar sound like?
- We know that galaxies in Universe Sandbox ² could use some love, and we plan to give them the love they deserve soon. Their overall appearance will get an overhaul, and they’ll no longer resemble jumbled, generic galaxies.
A pulsar in Universe Sandbox ².
More Likely to Arrive Later
- Total Body Fragmentation
- Pretty self-explanatory: with this new system, bodies will completely fragment when the force of a collision is strong enough. This should be most apparent when two equally sized bodies collide, as they should completely fragment apart instead of one “eating” the other, which currently happens. Our physics developer will begin work on this again after finishing the New Native described above.
- Third Stage of Planetary Grids/Detail/Automata
- Heat transfer between planetary layers? Life simulation? Maybe! We don’t have an exact plan for where this system will take us after stage two, but we’re excited to find out.
- Mobile Version
- Sure it’s cool playing Universe Sandbox ² at your desk, but what if you could simulate the universe on your phone that you just pulled out of your pocket? And then with a tap of your finger you send a black hole careening past the sun, putting our whole solar system in galactic jeopardy? All while waiting for the bus to arrive? Yeah that sounds pretty cool, too. And with the processing power of modern phones and tablets, it’s not as far-fetched as you may think. In fact, we already have a version up and running on some of our phones. There’s still a lot of work to do on optimizing for performance and controls, but we’re making good progress.
- Steam Workshop & Custom Models
- Sharing is caring. Of course, your carefully crafted custom solar system still exists even if you’re the only one looking at it, but wouldn’t it be more fun to share it with thousands of other Universe Sandbox ² fans? You can already manually share these files, but we want to support seamless sharing and browsing of custom simulations and bodies using Steam Workshop. Combine this with support for importing your own models and suddenly you have access to whatever planets, stars, and spaceships our passionate and talented community dreams of.
- Rigid Body Collision System
- If you’ve ever collided a bowling ball with some dice in Universe Sandbox ², you know that they just merge with each other, and if you’ve ever seen these collide in real life, you know that’s not entirely realistic behavior. That’s why our new physics developer, Rahul, is working on the solution to this exact problem. Then it’s onto other areas of rigid body physics, like constraints, stacking, and collapse, which paves the way for space megastructures and even pilotable spaceships.
- Universe Sandbox ² isn’t designed as planetarium software, but we agree that being able to view constellations can be fun and educational, especially when paired with a sandbox environment. It’s an often requested feature that hasn’t made its way over yet from Universe Sandbox Legacy, but we plan to devote some time to this for a future update.
- Atmospheric Scattering
- Sunrises and sunsets are universally loved, whether your planet orbits one star or five. Wouldn’t it be great to see them in Universe Sandbox ² when standing on the surface of your planet? This is where something called atmospheric scattering comes in. We teased this a long time ago with a demo video, but it only existed as a project separate from Universe Sandbox ². We still plan to implement this eventually, as it certainly adds a small but dramatic touch to the surface view.
Jupiter orbiting Wolf 359 in Universe Sandbox ².
And Then Even Later…
- Yes, we mentioned “pilotable spaceships” above, but remember that rigid body physics are only a step toward these and they are still a long way off. Doesn’t mean we’re not completely in love with the idea and already looking forward to the possibility!
- Space Mega Structures
- Using physics-based space tethers as the idea behind the basic building block, these structures can come in many pre-defined shapes and sizes, and eventually support custom building. Think space elevators, Dyson spheres, and ring worlds. Then just attach a ridiculously overpowered laser, and you’ve got yourself a DIY Death Star. There’s still a lot to do to get these running smoothly in a simulation, but the above-mentioned work on rigid body physics will help us get there.
- Procedurally Generated Planetary Surfaces
- Users often tell us they want to see more details when entering surface cam (select a body and press “C” to enter surface cam). Once implemented, this will be a great answer to that request. Instead of relying on a small number of hand-crafted textures, planetary surfaces could instead be procedurally, randomly generated, resulting in an endless variety of surfaces with a dynamic range of detail. This is just in the idea phase right now; we have not begun work on it yet, and it won’t be a quick project. But we know that it could add another level of immersion and realism to Universe Sandbox ² and be a fan-favorite.
Excited? As we’ve said many times, so are we. Thank you for your never-ending support, and thank you for your patience as we continue to build the universe.
Welcome, TRAPPIST-1 system! NASA announced yesterday the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the ultra-cool dwarf star, TRAPPIST-1.
Check out the new simulation of the TRAPPIST-1 system in Universe Sandbox ²:
Home > Open > Core tab > TRAPPIST-1
Three of the seven planets are within the star’s habitable zone, which means that they are in an area where rocky planets have the highest likelihood of having liquid water. This also means that they have a chance of supporting life as we know it.
The TRAPPIST-1 system is relatively close to us at about 40 light-years from Earth. It is named after The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, which discovered three of the planets announced in May 2016. Then in the fall of 2016, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope observed TRAPPIST-1 for 500 continuous hours, confirming the original discovery and uncovering the rest of the seven planets. This is the greatest number of potentially habitable planets ever discovered around a single star.
All seven of the planets have orbits closer to their star than Mercury is to the Sun. Scientists suspect that, because of these tight orbits, they are all likely tidally-locked, as well. This means that the same side of the planet always faces the star, just as one side of the Moon always faces the Earth. But despite this proximity and being tidally-locked, they all have a chance of harboring liquid water due to the parent star’s very low temperature. Scientists say this system is a promising place to search for life, and they will continue to observe the system and its planets.
Set the background in Universe Sandbox ² by clicking View > Background. Click “Open Advanced Settings” on a preset to set a custom color.
What Was New in 2016?
Before we get into our 2017 roadmap, let’s look at the progress we made last year. The updates weren’t numerous, but each was a big step forward for Universe Sandbox ².
Universe Sandbox ² VR
In the beginning of 2016, Universe Sandbox ² VR was released as a featured launch title for the HTC Vive. It was extremely well received; many users described the awe at the sheer sense of scale of planets, stars, and astronomical distances that has to be seen in VR to be believed. But our highest accolade? The Escapist’s 2016 Winner of Best VR Experience: Universe Sandbox ².
We’re currently working on a VR update with the help of our new, dedicated VR developer.
Alpha 19 | Disintegration Update
Then in early November, we released Alpha 19 | Disintegration Update. It was a long, winding, bumpy road to Alpha 19 with a number of unexpected snags, but we were incredibly proud of what we released. Alpha 19 was a massive update, with an 8-page list of new features, improvements, and fixes.
Here are the big changes which came with Alpha 19:
- Tidal forces now tear apart planets
- Planets are now vaporized by high temperatures & supernovae
- Improved performance, appearance, & user control for fragments & particles
- Explosions look more epic & cause expanding “shockwaves”
- You can now record animated GIFs
- “New” labels, stats, & sorting options for sims
- New/updated models for the New Horizons probe, police box, Great Pyramid of Giza, & Saturn V third stage rocket
- Two new music tracks
We’ve released a couple of smaller updates since then which have fixed a number of bugs and introduced a few smaller features, like a new model for the Juno spacecraft and the ability to upload and share GIFs via Facebook and Twitter. Our latest update, Alpha 19.5, is another round of small improvements and bug fixes, and we’re now turning our complete attention to Alpha 20.
Six New Team Members
In mid-2016 we hired Dave to work full time on a mobile version of Universe Sandbox ². We’re still a long way from launching on mobile, but we already have a functional version running on a few of our team’s phones. (More info on a mobile version in Part II of our roadmap!)
In September, we hired Rahul to work alongside Thomas on some physics projects. He’s currently working on rigid body collisions, which means that smaller-scale objects, like pool balls or the pyramid, will eventually no longer merge together when colliding, and will instead bounce off of each other or even break apart. And a bit after Rahul, we hired Sergey to work on some new 3D models for Universe Sandbox ². Sergey created the recent Juno spacecraft model for us and is currently working on the Voyager.
Then in October, we hired our producer, David. David came just in time keep us corraled on the home stretch toward Alpha 19. Without him, it’s quite possible it would have taken us even longer to release Alpha 19. And as we move forward he has continued to wrangle all of the moving parts into one semi-coherent machine.
And while this isn’t technically 2016… since we’ve rounded the bend into 2017, we’ve hired two new team members. Mat is our new QA Lead who has already helped hunt down and document bugs for our 19.5 release, and Jacob is our new VR developer who will focus exclusively on continuing to build and improve the Universe Sandbox ² VR experience. (More info on our next VR update in Part II of our roadmap!)
We’re super excited to welcome Dave, Rahul, Sergey, David, Mat, and Jacob, and we’re thrilled to have a continually growing team of talented enthusiasts — we even have plans to hire a couple more this year. We’re not slowing down.
In our updated roadmap released last year, we talked about a lot of big features we planned to include in Alpha 20. But in this same roadmap, which was published in June, we also said that we were rounding the corner on releasing Alpha 19. We said this because we thought it was true.
If we fast forward to the release date of Alpha 19, November 8, almost 5 months after we thought we were rounding the bend, it becomes clear that things don’t always go as planned. Which is why we try to be transparent and not make promises about our development schedule. We simply can’t know. Maybe this could be an area of improvement for our team, or maybe it’s simply the fact that we’re trying to simulate the universe and that’s a complicated task that no one has solved before… Who can say for sure?
Regardless, this is why we’re changing our plans for Alpha 20 a bit, and why we want to focus on smaller updates moving forward.
Let’s say you go out to eat with a big group of people. You can ask your server to bring out each dish as soon as it’s ready, or everyone can wait patiently, hungrily, until the chef crams in the last dish under the heat lamp and it’s time to bring everything out. Maybe you’re the polite type, but we know you’re hungry, so we’re going to try to roll things out in smaller updates, rather than all at once. Features are better fresh.
As mentioned above, our plans for Alpha 20 are a little bit different than they were in our 2016 roadmap. It may not be as feature-packed as originally planned, but there are still some exciting changes coming.
- Stellar Evolution
- Previously, we weren’t expecting this until after Alpha 20, but now it’s looking like we’ll have our new stellar evolution model ready for this update. With the rewritten model, Universe Sandbox ² will support 16 evolutionary star types versus the previous 5. Jenn, our astrophysicist, based the model on these papers; it is primarily a function of mass and age or metallicity, and will work for evolutionary types outside of main-sequence stars.
- The results will be more dynamic and accurate properties for stars, as well as smoother transitions from type to type. It will also now account for mass loss from solar winds, and be able to differentiate envelope from core.
- New User Interface System
- This is mostly just a change in the tech we’re using, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice some small changes to the design aesthetic as well. Also, if you’re on a 4k monitor and you’ve noticed that the text is a little hard to read at that resolution, then good news — the new interface is scalable for higher resolutions. It’s also an important step toward supporting language localization further down the road, and we know this is often requested.
- Analytics won’t change anything for users (at least not immediately), but it will help us better understand how people play Universe Sandbox ². We receive a lot of great feedback every day from our forums, social media, and in-game feedback system, but improving our analytics will allow us to see things like which sims are opened the most and which never are, or which options and features are never seen because they’re too hard to find or are confusing to use, or how many users close out of the tutorial after the second step. We’ll look at the data as a whole to see where our strengths and weaknesses are so we can focus our efforts on making the best possible improvements to the user interface and user experience. (And if you’d prefer to opt out of sending analytics, you can certainly do that as well.)
- Merged Desktop/VR Builds
- A small change for users (who will simply see one executable instead of two separate ones for desktop and VR), but an important step for the team. Along with merging these two separate “projects” internally on our development side, this will help keep the two versions up to par with each other in terms of features and improvements. And also with the help of Jacob, our new VR dev, this will make future VR updates a much smoother process.
- First Stage of Planetary Grids/Detail/Automata
- This is admittedly just a tease. You won’t see anything different on this front in Alpha 20. Our plan is just to take the first step in bringing in the necessary tech for this, which has existed in a separate development branch. But what is this nameless feature? Well, it’s actually a system that will open up the doors for a bunch of exciting features that will make planets visually more detailed and responsive to interactions. But we’ll have to wait until after Alpha 20 to see the first of these features in Universe Sandbox ².
What’s Coming After Alpha 20?
Find out in Part II of our 2017 roadmap!
And we really can’t say it enough — thanks to all of our fans for continuing to support Universe Sandbox ² as we enter another year. We’re very excited with all of the changes coming in 2017, and we’re incredibly grateful to our growing community for hunting down bugs and for helping define and prioritize our roadmap. Thank you for joining us on this crazy ride.
Alpha 19.5 is a small update which introduces a few graphics improvements, including updated coloring for Sedna and better textures for Ganymede, the Moon, and Earth’s city lights. It also includes a bunch of minor bug fixes, like correcting the scale for the new Juno model, fixing the appearance of rocky planets affected by supernovae, and addressing some smaller issues with volatiles and Roche fragmentation.
We are also happy to welcome our new team members, Mat and Jacob. As our new QA Lead, Mat has dived right into the project and has been busy finding and documenting bugs, which has already helped us for this update. Jacob is our new developer who will be working full-time on building and improving the VR experience.
And a warm, belated welcome to our new producer, David, who helped us get on track for Alpha 19 and continues to push us in the right direction as we move into 2017. We’re very excited for all of the new features and improvements coming to Universe Sandbox ² this year.