Terraforming Mars – Multitouch Game – AMNH 2011

Terraforming Mars – Multitouch Game – AMNH 2011

Terraforming Mars – Multitouch Game – AMNH 2011

The Mars Terraforming table is one of the most complex interactives ever created for an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. The table is an over-sized multi-touch surface with a game playable by three users simultaneously. All of the game play, user experience, interface design, animations, video, scientific interpretation, software and hardware were created in-house.

Mars Terraforming is a theoretical process developed by NASA designed to change the living conditions on Mars. The first goal of terraforming is to alter the atmosphere of Mars to increase temperature and pressure, both necessary conditions for life. In the second phase life is introduced, starting with simple forms -like lichens and mosses-and ending with more complex ones like flowers and trees. The process is involved, it requires several technologies and life forms, some of them introduced in specific order. The process would have to be collaborative and it would require the participation of several nations over generations. Everything in the subject of terraforming is a natural fit for a highly engaging and educational interactive game, so we went for it.

Our curator, Mike Shara, recommended the Red Mars trilogy –a science fiction work regarded as one of the most accurate descriptions of the terraforming process on Mars. These books took us through sand dunes, frozen poles, immense craters and vast canyons. By following the adventures of its characters, we learned about the technologies involved in terraforming, helping us imagine the living conditions of those working on terraforming, plus the technological challenges involved in the task. These books were a great introduction to the research phase that followed, based on scientific papers by NASA researcher Chris McKay –an advisor on the project.


The Concept

After our initial research phase, the ideas started to flow. My first idea (see sketch below) was to create an interactive surface that would recognize either QR codes or RFID tags on solid 3D objects –mirrors, bombs, plants- when placed on different parts of the planet. The pieces would have been used at at different stages of the process, making sure that temperature, pressure and water changed before introducing any plants. The 3D pieces would have affected the overall condition of the planets, but would have shown also local changes (like the melting of the poles). Interpretive information would have appeared in the area activated by the pieces, explaining the effect of the tool on the planet.

The idea evolved into a simpler dynamic that skipped the re-organization the pieces at the end of the game. Also, we decided that keeping users on one side of the surface would allow them to see a horizon-version of Mars –with trees and other terraformed features- a view that was necessary as a pay off in the game. Discussions were endless and fun, often extending beyond the hours. My storyboard –below- compiles our thoughts.

click on the image to enlarge


By the time we defined this interactive dynamic, we had already parsed the content. We determined the required phases, variables, indicators and the mathematical model to be used in the software. Mark Iscoe, our researcher/writer for the piece was a key player in this part of the process. He was the one who sat with 4-inch-thick books and endless scientific papers to determine the steps, the values, the orders and everything required to make an accurate representation of McKay’s theories. Once the content was structured, it came time to design the assets.


Viewing Mars

Users needed to perceive the terraforming phases from different distances. The first stage –changing the atmosphere and liquifying the water- needed to be played from “satellite” distance to be able to locate the tools in different zones of the planet and then see the effects on planetary scale. The second stage needed to be closer –at about “airplane” distance- so users could see the landscape changing from a desert to a forest. The final phase, carried by a narrated video, needed to show Mars from “mountain” level, so the trees, cities and crops could be visible.

For this, our team of animators, Camila Engelbert and Ku Hsuan Tsui (Lili), researched NASA images and locations to re-create the views. The first phase view is based on satellite imagery of Mars, combined with a 3D model of the planet’s surface to increase texture through composite. On top of the view of Mars, Camila animated the conversion of frozen polar water into extended oceans, the thickening of the atmosphere and the formation of clouds. The biggest challenge was to place oceans in the real location, forming consistently with the topography of Mars.

The second phase was more complicated, since the “airplane” view had more detail. The valley was created from 3D topographic data. The ground texture was based on photographs from the Rovers. The coloration of both ground and sky was based on atmospheric composition and light behavior. These last elements had to change throughout the phase, when oxygen became more available. Finally, we added a series of layers to represent how different forms of life would change the landscape; soil formed, water changed, plants grew, the sky became blue.

The third view of Mars, the “mountain” view, became a video animation that narrates the end of the game. For this view we hired Stefan Morrell, a Newzealand illustrator known for his space-themed illustrations for National Geographic. Sarah Galloway, our videographer for this project made an animated movie from the illustration, to help viewers focus on specific segments of the landscape and to integrate it within a narrative structure.


The Terraforming “Tools”

We offered each visitor ten interactive techniques –or tools- to terraform Mars: bombs, space mirrors, black dust, factories and an asteroid for the first phase; microbes, lichens, mosses, flowers and trees for the second one. Each tool had to be explained scientifically using Chris McKay’s papers as our guide. We needed to explain how the tools worked and their impact within the entire process. At the same time, I wanted to convey this concept in both a textual and a visual way, to make sure fast players and young visitors would get the core of the content without the need to read.

Harry Borrelli, our interface designer for this project, created 20 palettes –interactive areas- to explain the techniques involved in the terraforming of Mars. Each palette also offered the possibility to “launch” the tool, as a way to produce changes on the planet. The release of the tools would activate a new set of animations, that together altered the landscape. To showcase the changes, we generated a set of animated layers that progressively changed the face of Mars.


The Multi-touch Table

An important component of this piece was the development of the display technology I first envisioned for the game. As a natural progression to the work we have done in the previous years –from sensor based activation in the Silk Road Interactive Map, to gesture recognition in the Brain Neuron Table- we needed to generate a display that allowed several users to play simultaneously by touching its surface. In other words, we needed to leave behind the sensors and the shadows and jump to multi-touch technology. 

Built on the previous work developed by Cameron Browning, Sean Redmond and Ben Wilson –now joined by Matt Usi and Michael Edwards– our technology team developed a 6′ by 4′ top projected, multi-touch surface from scratch. Cameron, our developer for this project designed the system of cameras, infrared lights and programmed the table and the content of the game. Matt and Michael designed the systems to support the table, specking the best equipment and the networking of the piece. Katherine Powell joined this team and the 3D designer, creating an elegant design to house the display. Antonio Machado provided assistance for the installation in both the prototyping and final phases of the design.

The game ends with a video describing the landscape of a terraformed Mars. It is based on this panorama that Stefan made for us.


American Museum of Natural History, 2011
“Beyond Planet Earth” Exhibition
Interactive multi-player game on multi-touch surface
Helene Alonso, Harry Borrelli, Cameron Browning, Camila Engelbert, Stuart Fox, Mark Iscoe, Sarah Galloway, Antonio Machado, MAtt MacVey, Stephan Morrell, Katherine Powell, Ku Hsuan Tsui , Matt Usi, under the scientific advice of Mike Shara (AMNH) and Chris McKay (NASA).

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