Virtual Technology and Design
phone: (208) 885-7083
fax: (208) 855-9428
College of Art & Architecture
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Drive MS 2491
Moscow, ID 83844-2491



College of Art and Architecture
875 Perimeter Drive MS 2461
Moscow, ID 83844-2461

phone: (208) 885-4409
fax: (208) 885-9428


Urban Design Center
322 E Front Street, Suite 120
Boise, ID 83702

phone: (208) 334-2999

Integrated Design Lab
306 S 6th St.
Boise, ID 83702

phone: (208) 429-0220

Mars Hopper

Virtually Discovering Mars

By Karen Hunt

The horizon is nothing but red desert sand, with rocks scattered everywhere. It is desolate. No living creature can be seen for miles, which makes home feel even further away.

This is, after all, Mars and home on earth is located hundreds of millions of kilometers away. But no matter how isolated the planet feels, there is research to be done to discover what’s out there.

This may sound like a scene from a science fiction movie, but it’s really part of an assignment in John Anderson’s virtual technology and design studio.

The Idaho National Laboratory’s Center for Space Nuclear Research has designed nuclear-powered “hopper” technology to research the geological landscape of Mars. The robotic technology is sent from Earth to the red planet to gather data and geological samples.

“Steve Howe from Idaho National Laboratory inquired if some students would be interested in making a visualization of the Mars Hopper project,” says Anderson, assistant professor of Virtual Technology and Design in the College of Art and Architecture.

Still in conception, Anderson’s class offered a potential design for the Mars Hopper. Students were given specific details that the Idaho National Laboratory wanted them to show. From those details, students came up with a storyline.

“From the concept, there are many different pathways students can take to tell the story,” says Anderson.

The class’ overall goal is to aid and assist in visualizing their client’s ideas to aid in technology development. They build virtual worlds and animations that can help explain concepts and generate excitement and funding for research.

“We try to work closely with researchers from the Idaho National Laboratory to reveal their needs and show the impact of their work,” says Anderson.

Before any images were created, the class spent some time researching Mars.

“We researched and learned about the environment of Mars, everything from the atmosphere to the landscape,” says Alex Parenti, a junior studying virtual technology and design. “We also did research on all the technology that is already being used for Mars exploration.”

The class created individual story ideas, and then came together to chose the best storyline to produce a video. They chose a single storyline because they wanted to create a quality piece of work that would best serve their client.

Once they agreed on the storyline, they broke the animation into chapters and created a storyboard to show the sequences of the video.

“We had drawings of the main scenes,” says Parenti. “If there were six chapters, there would be 120 sketches.”

“We try not to enter into the computer world too heavily until we have a design mock-up,” says Anderson. “We produce far more behind the scenes than will ever be seen.”

The next step was to begin creating 3-D models of the sketches the students made. Each chapter became a set of picture frames that would eventually become edited together to create the full video. The class was split into four groups: modeling, lighting, texturing and animation. A fifth animation sub-group was created from the leaders of each of the main groups. For the rest of the semester, each group worked on their assigned groups task.

“When we initially start projects, we don’t know our destination,” says Anderson. “We allow the project to evolve in order to tell the best possible story.”

Feedback is a large part of the process. Each story goes through a peer review session, where other classmates can critique the story, ultimately providing solutions to problems.

“We are very much about the team aspect of design,” says Anderson. “We can often learn more through failure than by success.”

Those failures are what Anderson says pushes students to create better story lines and produce a better concept for the client. The studio class is in the final stages of production and will present it to the Idaho National Laboratory by the end of this semester.

“Good design will ultimately design itself,” says Anderson. “The success of the Mars Hopper will reveal itself in the years to come.”