Dave's Space Simulator

Spaceflight SimulatorThis is my favourite toy. It's a combination of a spaceflight simulator and a multimedia presentation system. This is what I use to give my presentations but I also like to let other people have a play on it.

The simulator is usually operated by one person but it's designed to be operated by up to three people. In future this should expand to five or more—in fact the idea is to create a flexible system that can be used by any number of people acting as a "crew" for the spaceship.

I started developing this system in 2010 and it's been a work in progress since then. I still think of it as a prototype. It works well enough to be fun, but it's not yet fully-featured and it stutters a bit while you use it. I'm slowly adding better hardware and software, so it's improving all the time, but there's a lot of work to do before it's completely awesome.

Left: The latest version, built in January 2012.
Below: An earlier prototype being tested in 2011 by Floyd (4) and Jess (6).

Space Simulator

So what does it do exactly?

Using navigation controls and a joystick, you can travel around the Earth, solar system and wider universe. You could start with a simple trip to the Moon, then move on to explore the great volcanos and canyons of Mars, tour the diverse moons of Jupiter, then get really tricky and fly through the rings of Saturn. Once you're ready, venture out into the Milky Way Galaxy and even further into the great void of intergalactic space.

As you visit each location, related information from an astronomy database is shown, helping you understand what's going on and providing interesting space trivia.

The simulator also has the option to travel through time. Follow historic space missions or travel into the future to see where space flight might be heading.

As well as the spaceflight simulator, there's also a separate media player with related images, videos and audio clips. These can be mixed into the output video feed that goes to the main screen and projector.

Who can use it?

With assistance, just about anyone. If you're an accomplished gamer you'll be whizzing around like Luke Skywalker almost immediately. If you have no idea how to use a computer or joystick, you can stick to basic buttons that take you directly to various locations and show you around. The system is designed to be fun whether or not you want to be challenged by its operation.

Other features:

Technical details

The unit is divided into two parts: The spaceflight simulator and the A/V mixer.

The spaceflight simulator is based on Celestia, an open source astronomy application. I've enhanced the basic package with addons from other developers as well as my own modifications and additions.

The basic Celestia package can be controlled with a joystick and keyboard commands. This wasn't really good enough for what I wanted to do so I developed a separate system of controls, of which there are two types:

  1. Onscreen controls that can be used with a mouse and/or touchscreen. The interface is based on HTML/CSS/Javascript. The code for the actual control functions is written in Lua, the programming language that Celestia uses for its API (Application Programming Interface).
  2. Hardware controls, i.e. physical buttons. These are off-the-shelf programmable keypads. In my case I've programmed them to activate the same type of Lua scripts used in the onscreen controls.

The video mixing module is based on VidBlaster, a commercial application used for live studio production. Video inputs can be any common video format (e.g. composite, RGB, HDMI, SDI).

Audio mixing is done with a PV20 sound desk. Audio inputs can be analogue or digital; outputs are sent simultaneously to the VidBlaster mix, headphone monitors and an external sound system.