Carving Powder, NASA-Style

Video game rendering of a snowboarder tackling an ASTER-inspired course Full-featured snowboarding courses were built on top of NASA satellite data, including landmarks like an abandoned nuclear power plant in Siberia.

Rendering of a mountain range using ASTER data Designers were able to incorporate ASTER data directly into their in-house software tools and render it into usable terrain for the game.

NASA satellite data helped create one of the most realistic snowboarding simulations to date

You might associate NASA science missions with dry data sets intended to help us answer big questions about our world and the universe, but every once in a while such missions also yield more light-hearted, fun results.

Take Terra, the flagship of NASA’s Earth Observing System, which studies a sweeping set of the planet’s characteristics. Terra possesses many scientific instruments, including the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER).

ASTER provides the next generation in remote sensing imaging capabilities and was used to put together a global digital elevation map (GDEM), released in 2009—the most advanced of its kind. According to Michael Abrams of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, ASTER GDEM is “the most complete global topographic data set freely available to the public. Since we released it, we have distributed millions of 1 by 1 degree tiles to users all over the world.”

ASTER GDEM data has many scientific and social applications, but surprisingly enough it was put to creative use in the hands of Los Angeles-based Electronic Arts, a video game developer and publisher.

“The Last Piece of the Puzzle”

In 2009, the company started production on Super Snowcross (SSX), the latest in its series of snowboarding games. Todd Batty, producer and creative director of SSX, says that the series “has always been big, crazy, and over the top, and we wanted to deliver a massive amount of content by creating entire landscapes.”

Rendering a full mountain from scratch is a time-consuming process that can require an army of programmers, artists, and level designers. To streamline the process, the team figured out how to generate mountain terrains algorithmically using an in-house software tool called Mountain Man.

While the mountains created by this process were close to what the team wanted, Batty says they still lacked some essential qualities. “As we researched the mountains of Earth and compared them to the ones we were building, ours just didn’t have the same character, interesting features, or, obviously, the great history that the famous mountains of the world have.”

One day a technical lead on the project called Batty into his office, where he had been experimenting with mountain-building. The programmer said he had “found something really cool online”— ASTER’s data—which he had downloaded and converted into a format Mountain Man could use. He asked Batty to name any mountain on Earth, and within 30 seconds the two were looking at and manipulating a 3D replication of it.

“That had been the weakest link in the chain,” says Batty. “When we found that we could start with what was essentially a real mountain, and then let Mountain Man and our artists build on top of that, it proved to be the last piece of the puzzle.”

A Mountain of Data

While the overall look and feel of the mountains is realistic, EA added all of the flair, obstacles, and power-ups one typically finds in an action game, as well as iconic landmarks such as the Great Wall of China to add interest. Says Batty, “Players experience the best of both worlds: everything has an air of authenticity because the base of the data is straight from satellites, but they also get larger than life gameplay.”

“I know for sure that if we end up doing another game in the series,” he adds, “we will use the data again, because this was an awesome experience for us.”

To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original article from Spinoff 2012.