Inverse Perspective
August 16, 2013 7:44 AM   Subscribe

Syd Mead's Stanford Torus Illustrations for National Geographic got him the job, 40 years later, of designing Elysium for Neill Blomkamp. Mead calls the unique visual effect of these interior drawings, in which the horizon wraps up and over the viewpoint, 'inverse perspective'. This effect, and others like it, have been explored in the concept art for large, rotating, space habitats at least since the early 1960s.

This painting, of the interior of a hollow asteroid, by artist Roy G. Scarfo for engineer Dandridge Cole, is published in their 1964 book 'Beyond Tomorrow'. In the same year, architect Paolo Soleri designed his own hollow asteroid, Asteromo, of which, sadly, no interior perspective drawings seem to exist. The paintings by Don Davis and Rick Guidice for NASA Ames 1975 summer study on Space Settlements have made the rounds before, on metafilter and elsewhere. The study was led by physicist Gerard O'Neill, who worked out the details of these large habitats extensively. Mead's artwork for National Geographic is based on this work for NASA. So is another set of paintings, by Pierre Mion, also for National Geographic, and published in the bicentennial issue, along with a short by Isaac Asimov. A classic ancestor to these concepts is the one worked out by Wernher von Braun with artist Chesley Bonestell for Colliers Magazine in 1953, which itself is the direct inspiration for Robert McCall's work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, in 1968. Other paintings showing Stanford Torus interiors show up in Disney's concept art for Epcot, and there's a Bernal Sphere painting, and some interiors of an O'Neill Cylinder, in the 1976 Science Year edition of the Wolrd Book Encyclopedia. No list of space habitat artwork would be complete without mentioning the cover artwork for Arthur Clarke's 1974 Rendezvous with Rama, and Larry Niven's 1970 Ringworld, both classic Big Dumb Objects. It would also be remiss not to mention, finally, architect Doug Michels' 1987 designs for a human/dolphin space habitat, Blue Star.
posted by sevensixfive (21 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Holy shit, I'm 8 years old again and looking through my dad's weirder architecture books.
posted by cortex at 7:48 AM on August 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Beautiful - now I have a name to go along with this style that I've always enjoyed!

The interview linked with 'inverse perspective' is a very good one!
posted by unixrat at 8:04 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also the "Ringworld" link (third from the bottom) is broken.
posted by unixrat at 8:09 AM on August 16, 2013

Weird, it worked when I previewed - here's another copy of the same image (painted by Don Davis, half of the NASA Ames Summer Study team of artists, I might add). Thanks for the heads up!
posted by sevensixfive at 8:12 AM on August 16, 2013

One of the ultimate expressions of this concept is Iain M. Banks' Orbitals. While almost all of the Culture books feature them prominently, Look To Windward is about a (sentient) Orbital.

Orbitals, in turn, were a major influence on the worlds of Halo.
posted by bonehead at 8:45 AM on August 16, 2013

Directors are very different than you or I. They think in their heads

Syd Mead: classic SF designer, but not a biologist.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:07 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I guess the Ringworld link was unstable.

I love the dolphins-in-a-sphere-of-water, but would it work? Can you swim effectively in free fall?

p.s. a google image search for space dolphin is amazing.
posted by fitnr at 9:14 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, but the Banks Orbitals are on a whole different scale, though, with individual plates that are continent sized being moved into place one by one (or rather, two by two, on opposite sides of the ring skeleton) during construction. So there would be no perspective issue - it would look just like a normal landscape, other than maybe a narrow shimmering band arcing high above the hub.

The inverse perspective sketches here are a lot more intimate, and I think it would be quite dizzying in practice until you got used to people walking at odd angles or rivers flowing "upwards".

The perspective inside the spaceship in 2001 (not the space station, but inside Discovery itself) was an even more cramped and intimate inverse perspective, I think? The exercise treadmill around the crew quarters? Ok, here, from a quick and dirty search.
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:22 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lovely pen and marker draftsmanship. I'm a fan of markers myself, but I have nowhere near a fraction of the skill with them as Mead.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:25 AM on August 16, 2013

It's not inside of a sphere or ring, but I recently finished, Kairo, a game that more than any other I've played made me feel like I was in an Arthur C. Clarke novel exploring weird alien ruins. It has fantastic atmosphere and elegant design that creates surprisingly distinct and memorable places from very simple building blocks.
posted by straight at 9:55 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I love the dolphins-in-a-sphere-of-water, but would it work? Can you swim effectively in free fall?

Swimming would work, you could still push yourself through a fluid medium, whether water or air. Buoyancy wouldn't work, though, fish couldn't use their swim bladder to go up and down. Do (space) dolphins have swim bladders? Do they regulate their lung pressure for buoyancy the same way deep freestyle (human) divers do?
posted by sevensixfive at 9:57 AM on August 16, 2013


"It is set in the fictional world of Virga, a world of multiple artificial suns, a fullerene sphere filled with air and full of drifting rocks and nations floating around Candesce, (the eponymous "Sun of Suns"). "
posted by leotrotsky at 10:29 AM on August 16, 2013

Here's Simon Terry's video perspective on what Ringworld would look like.

Ringworld is much bigger than a typical Culture (or Halo) orbital. Ringworld is about 1 orbit of the earth across (~1.5 x 10^8 km), while an Orbital is about 3,000,000 km across, about 2% that size. The Earth has a diameter of about 12,000 km.
posted by bonehead at 10:29 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

In Niven's The Smoke Ring people use "wings" which are actually like large swim fins, to act as fans for swimming in air. Maybe we can petition for the ISS crew to test that idea out. Though they couldn't be very wide.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:30 AM on August 16, 2013

Here's another Ringworld visualization also from Simon Terry, a closeup of the rimwalls.
posted by bonehead at 10:34 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

(Personally I think it would be very difficult to make that work -- the fluid resistance of water makes it easy to go straight and not twist around as you kick. Without some kind of guide planes on your hands or arms I think you'd have a lot of trouble controlling your direction.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:35 AM on August 16, 2013

The space station in the game Startopia is a torus. Once you've fully terraformed the biodeck, it's great fun to put the camera at ground level, walk around for a bit, and get a taste for what it would be like to actually live in one of these 70s NASA concepts.
posted by honestcoyote at 12:03 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's another Ringworld visualization also from Simon Terry, a closeup of the rimwalls.

Huh, I always pictured the spill mountains reaching all the way up the wall. Have I been mistaken this whole time?
posted by equalpants at 7:43 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

equalpants, in my visualizations (and in fact, I did a pencil cross-section of the Ringworld, to scale against objects of our solar system, on my bedroom wall as a kid...) the spill mountains certainly had the look of an logarithmically scaled chart, and thus formed a jagged edge at least halfway up the walls, but I'm not sure he had described them in that much detail in the first novel. Googling shows that the pumping system that the spill mountains served only required them to have a height of 50 or 60km (10x Everest), whereas the rimwall itself is 1000km tall in relation to the "floor".

As I understand it, the main problem that smaller and smaller tori have, for space stations, is coriolis forces and the human inner ear. Some literature has actually posited motion-sickness drugs to keep people from getting too dizzy to work or live. I don't think anyone has a practical lower bound for the size of one of these things, but most of what I've read indicates that the Discovery in 2001 would be much too small. A 2001-style rotating space station might work, but generally the Elysium-scaled colonies are probably well out of the amusement park zone.

They would need to be sealed, though. The Brownian motion of any atmosphere would not be affected really well by any centripetal force exerted, and you'd get too much stuff just succumbing to entropy at the upper bound and bleeding away. I've seen similar criticisms of the atmosphere for Ringworld, though; I think that was part of Niven's backstory about the maintenance systems that appeared in later novels, to "fix" deficiencies of the design/construction brought up by real-world Ringwonks.
posted by dhartung at 1:43 AM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Such as the discovery that the Ringworld is unstable.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:23 AM on September 10, 2013

I love the dolphins-in-a-sphere-of-water, but would it work? Can you swim effectively in free fall?

posted by jjwiseman at 2:49 PM on September 11, 2013

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