Closer to a HoT Beta

Closer to a HoT Beta

In a short while, the link to the venerable Bestiary of Geekdom up top will move to the sidebar, and be replaced with the House of Time.

This is a project I’ve been tapping away at for six months or so, on and off, and in an effort to play a little less of my usual gin rummy, I’m working toward soft-launching a public beta. It will be missing a lot of features and content, but should be a good start.

The 3d engine is built in Javascript on the Babylon.js WebGL framework. My goal is for it to run in all modern browsers–including mobile–with low-to-modest hardware requirements. There will be no loading screens, HUD or narration, no accounts or other tracking, no objectives or “gamification,” and certainly no ads. The House of Time will be free and available to all. If you’re old enough to remember the experience of Myst when it first came out, you’ll understand the quiet, contemplative, even lonely atmosphere I wish to create. Art as science as art. This is in furtherance of my personal philosophy that education should be free.

I’ve been designing a system that uses as little bandwidth as possible. Most interactive 3d is built around the expectations of PCs and consoles: That transfer is fast, storage is large, and the GPU is the bottleneck. Here that’s reversed. There will be zero texture maps. Shaders will supply most of the visual detail procedurally, generating it on the fly in your graphics card. SVGs will be rendered to bitmap in a hidden canvas element to supply more specific 2d imagery. Most of the shaders will rely on world space coordinates, so that two instanced models sitting side by side may look radically different. Instanced geometry will be used as much as possible. Complex extruded shapes will be generated in the browser from a path and cross-section. Chunks of geometry will load only when needed, and free their memory when no longer in use.

The overall scene (more than a mile long) is being built in Blender, as it plays well with Babylon.js and glTF export. Even with the UI improvements in the Bforartists fork, this has been a major pain point, and creation of complex 3d assets (dinos!) lags badly. (My preferred 3d package, Hash Animation:Master, has sadly become a paid zombie, with no meaningful updates this decade. The quest for a replacement continues…) I split the large scene into chunks manually and export them for browser loading with Babylon.js’s Blender export plugin. Tags in the names of models and lights are digested by the engine on load, to do things like assigning noise shaders, creating extruded shapes, or replacing a mesh with sprites.

This week, I’ve built a new stageManager object to move scenery on- and offstage and in and out of memory, as well as written a new pine foliage shader I’m reasonably happy with. Before going public, I still need to create and fix a few more things:

Assets

Membership/Info Card – Footstep sounds – Titanosaur – Low-res Ionic Pediment – Evergreens – Brick Walkways – Tree Ferns – Cambrian Marker – Beach – Stars

Engine

StageManagerNew evergreen shader – Sound manager

Bugs

Crash on deleting assetContainerFalling sprites not finding ground – Sprite systems not reusing correctly – Too much fog at start – Left-hand side of gate not animating – Miocene grass too short – Cretaceous Hall light wonkiness – No Carboniferous shadows

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The House of Time: A Walkthrough

You visit a page and find a punched metal gate, with an arrowhead design on one half and an Apollo capsule on the other. It slides open. You realize this is a 3d scene, like a game, and you can move about with familiar keyboard, mouse and touch controls.

The fog rolls back to reveal a paved driveway leading to a museum-like facad ahead. The outlines of animals line the walk. Strange animals

You hear your footstep as you pass through the thin gate, stepping over a drain and past some grassy planters. You cross the turnaround circle and mount the steps.

Inside, sunlight streams through a modernist glass domed roof, falling on stone sculptures of dinosaurs. Titanosaur towers over you. Beneath your feet, a plexiglass floor shows creatures from the sea. On you pass into an older-looking part of the museum. More creatures: Allosourus, stegosaurs. Forward into a gothic section, with still more creatures: plainer somehow, more crocodile-like. You pass outside again through a charred portal, burned to its hinges.

Outside, sailback lizard sculptures bask in the sun of a palatial back veranda. You descend the steps into a stand of pines and ferns. The path continues. Lonely, rough-hewn sculptures in rusted metal mourn a world they once ruled. Soon there’s nothing but a thick carpet of trilobite fossils, crunching beneath your feet. A plain marker declares even their end.

There is nothing but the scrub, the path, the sun. Occasional stone columns pass to either side.

Half an eternity later, the sun begins to set. As you pass over a small rise, the moon disappears. Below is a rocky beach leading to an endless sea. You descend as the stars come out and stand at the dark surf, watching the stars above and below.

This is the House of Time, a scale model of Earth history. Each step you’ve taken represents a million years.

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