I made some great progress yesterday with volumetric effects, and am officially excited about the current look of dust clouds/nebulas! I've implemented a very cheap approximation to global illumination for volumes. Although the effect is really simple, it adds a lot to the realism. On top of illumination from background nebulae, there's also a fake illumination effect from stars. Here are some shots:

Definitely starting to feel like the game has a strong atmosphere!

The rest of my time lately has been devoted to finally getting real collision detection. I tried several options, including Bullet, OZCollide and Opcode. For now, I've opted (no pun intended...) to go with Opcode. I love the cleanliness of the interface, as well as the fact that it's really easy to use as just a narrow-phase collider, since I've already implemented my own broad-phase.

Once again, I started a fight that I shouldn't have started with someone way bigger than me. Luckily, thanks to the new, accurate collision-detection, I was able to sneakily take refuge in a depression in this large asteroid:

Opcode is very fast, so I'm pleased with that. And I haven't even set up temporal coherence caches yet, which supposedly can yield 10x speedups. Unfortunately, I've already run into a very serious problem that it seems is universal to collision detectors. They don't support scaling in world transformations!! I'm not sure why...I guess there's some fundamental challenge with that and collision detection algorithms that I'm not aware of. At any rate, this poses a big problem: I've got thousands of collidable asteroids drifting around systems. With scaling support, this wouldn't be a problem, because there are only about 15 unique meshes that I generate for a given system. With instancing and scaling, you can't tell that some of the asteroids are the same. Scaling is an absolutely critical part of the illusion! But to get the scaled asteroids to work with collision detectors, I have to bake the scale data into the meshes. I can't possibly generate a unique, scaled mesh and acceleration structure for each of the thousands of asteroids at load time. That would take way too long, and way too much memory.

To solve this, what I'm currently doing is trying to anticipate collisions, and launch another thread to build the acceleration structures for the objects that would be involved. To do so, I keep track of a "fattened" world-space AABB for all objects, and launch the builder thread when the fattened boxes intersect. The factor by which the world boxes are exaggerated affects how early the acceleration structures will be cached. So far, this method is working really well. Opcode is fast at building acceleration structures, so I haven't had any trouble with the response time. In theory, with a slow processor, collisions will be ignored if the other thread does not finish building the acceleration structure before the collision occurs. I've tested to see how far I can push the complexity of meshes before this starts happening. Indeed, if I use the full-quality asteroid meshes (~120k tris) for collision, my first missile flies right through them (admittedly, I also turned the speed way up on the missiles). But let's face it, 120k tris for a collision mesh is a little much! And the only real alternative is to stall and wait for the acceleration structure to be generated, which means the game would freeze for a moment as your missile is heading towards an asteroid or ship. I'd much prefer to run the risk of an occasional missed collision on a really low-end machine than to have the game regularly stalling when I shoot at things.

I'm very impressed with how easy multithreading is with SFML. The thread and mutex structures provided by SFML are completely intuitive and work perfectly! It took less than an hour to implement the aforementioned collision structure worker thread.