Seeker is a graphical, 3D simulation of the solar system from Software Bisque. Using high resolution graphics, animation, and astronomical data and photos, the program allows the user to build tours of the Sun's solar system, visit planets, asteroids, and other objects. Pre-programmed tours showcase the possibilities.
Think of having a spaceship that you can control. It's capable of speeds even faster than light and can go to a long list of solar system objects. You can program guided tours, go into orbit around planets, and save the whole flight as a QuickTime movie to share with friends. That's Seeker in a nutshell.
Seeker creates view port on the Mac display. It can be in a regular window, a wide-screen format window, or full screen. With different tabs, one can find objects, access flight controls, set the time, take a tour, or access settings. Settings dictate, most notably, graphics resources, background music, the visibility of celestial coordinates, and the frame rate.
Seeker can be used at three different levels, and this makes it a perfect gift for young people of all ages. Out of the box, one can take the pre-programmer tours -- there are 34 of them. This seems appropriate for very young children. The tours are narrated by Carolyn Collins Petersen and accompanied by background music.
The next level is to use the Flight Setup to go from one of any user set waypoints to another object in the solar system. One can dictate how long it takes to travel and what happens on arrival, say a west to east orbit. By selecting the orbital parameters, one can get a really close in look or a more panoramic view. This might be good for, say, 8-11 year olds.
The third level is to use Seeker's complete scripting command language to either modify a previously created flight or, for more experience users, perhaps young teenagers, write a complete mission from scratch.
Once the user has created a tour of the solar system, it can be saved as a QuickTime movie and distributed to friends. (Windows users will have to download and install QuickTime.)
If you've ever wondered what it would be like to get in a spaceship, sit in front of a large view port, travel to the planets, explore their moons, get a close up look of comets, and see an accurate, starry sky in the background, this program gives a very good feel for that. The rendering and photo-realism make the user feel as if he or she is really there, and that's a significant achievement for an application like this.
Notable features include:
- The ability to go to wide or full screen.
- Some very nice, ethereal background music.
- The ability to substitute the user's music. For example, Steven Halpern music.
- Background stars from the SAO star catalog, down to stellar magnitude 7.
- Options to display flight, time, and distance information on very cool, Startrekian-like data boxes on the screen.
- High resolution images of solar system objects that make the user feel as if she's really in orbit around the object.
- Ability to go to any time as well as selected objects in the solar system.
- Graphics display of current solar system configuration.
- User definable waypoints.
- Screen capture of, say, a fascinating view to share or use as desktop image.
- QuickTime output.
- GPU settings options to trade off speed against detail.
Perhaps recognizing that the learning process involves a constant reference to the manual and the scripting language, Software Bisque has thoughtfully included a very nice manual. It has a beautiful color image of Mars on the cover, for some good inspiration, and the type face is large -- which makes for easy reading and reference.
When software is designed to capture the imagination and appeal you young people (or even amateur astronomers who want to wow their nephews), then a nicely done manual is called for. Kudos to Software Bisque.
Seeker uses an installer for the sake of future enhancements, but all it does for now is to install the application in the designated application directory (/Applications by default) and create a holding directory in the user's home to hold tours, QuickTime movies, music, etc. Deinstallation is obtained by simply dragging the app to the trash. This was verified with a Software Bisque spokesperson.
In Orbit Around Saturn
1.5 GHz CPU 512 MB RAM OpenGL 2.0 or later Windows Vista, XP Professional or Home NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 or better -- or -- ATI 9600 or better 128 MB VRAM Display capable of 1024 x 768 2.5 GB of free disk space DVD drive
1.25 GHz PPC or 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo or faster 512 MB RAM Mac OS X 10.4.8 or later OpenGL 2.0 or later Remainder is the same as for Windows
Seeker is computationally and graphically intensive, so it will run best on the latest Mac and Windows hardware. For example, on the reviewer's Mac Book Pro with NVIDIA 9600 GPU, frame rates of 60 fps or more were almost always obtained, often much more. Software Bisque advises that a good experience is 30 fps or better, which suggests that older MacBooks and G4 Macs likely won't provide the best user experience.
Software Bisque offers a test on the product page so that a prospective buyer can test the hardware to see if it meets the minimum requirements before purchasing. Also, the most recent update, 1.1.2 (build 750) available from Bisque has additional tours and enhanced texturing of objects based on the latest telescope and spacecraft photos.
Solar System Alignments
The option for user music is limited. The user can only import .wav files, and only utilize one at a time. Most Mac users will find this requirement for the .wav format confusing because they are accustomed to either .aiff from a CD or .mp3 or .m4a files. It's easy to convert between formats, but this isn't explained in the manual at all. I'd like to see an option to import (non DRM files) directly from the iTunes folder and have a rotating medley of songs available.
A minor issue is that the program can only go back in time to Jan 1, 1753 and forward to the year 3000. Anyone who wants to investigate the configuration of the solar system earlier than 1753, say, around 0 B.C., will have to use a more full-featured program such as TheSkyX from Bisque Software.
Out of the box, I found Seeker to be bug free and a dazzling visual experience. It has the advantage of being usable at different levels by different aged young users, or even adults who want to explore the solar system and get a close up view of comets, planets and their moons. These images have only become available recently thanks to our many planetary probes that have taken terrific photos of these solar system neighbors. One can have a lot of fun with this software.