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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 20, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 42
Virtual Reality Gaming Is Serious Business at Applied Physics Lab

Clockwise from lower left: Jason Massey, visualization expert; Jim Miller, project manager; Kelly Fields, aerospace engineer; Kevin Huber, terrain database expert; and Jimmy Miller, an intern from Clemson University. Also part of the team is Alex Boule, an intern from the University of Maryland, College Park.

By Paulette Campbell
Applied Physics Laboratory

A small group of engineers and computer programmers in the Applied Physics Laboratory's Global Engagement Department is applying its simulation and visual expertise to develop educational video games. The work is part of Learning Games to Go, an initiative supported by a $15 million Department of Education grant to Maryland Public Television to help kids who are struggling with traditional instructional methods by using digital learning games.

The collaboration — which also includes the Johns Hopkins Center for Technology Education, the Education Arcade at MIT, several Maryland school districts, cutting-edge technology developers and education experts — is at the forefront of a "serious games" movement to deliver educational content through compelling game environments. Like commercial games, they harness a child's natural competitiveness and keep their interest, says Jim Miller, APL's project manager for Learning Games to Go.

"Kids today learn keyboarding as early as 4 years old; gaming and interacting with computers is an everyday and lifelong experience," Miller says. "If we can harness the technology available to make education games compelling and feature-rich, we could really engage students so that they don't want to stop playing or learning."

Dave Peloff, the program director of emerging technologies at the Center for Technology Education, says that rapid improvements in computer graphics are making it easier than ever to create detailed, 3-D environments. "The possibilities are endless in terms of serious games," he says. "Using virtual reality to model a real-world environment allows for experimentation and exploration in ways that are impossible, expensive or impractical otherwise."

That's where APL comes in. Miller has been developing synthetic environments since 1999, as part of the Navy's Advanced SEAL Delivery System Operator/Trainer project. He has developed synthetic environments for the Submarine Onboard Training program, a Web-enabled simulation prototype and an unmanned aerial vehicle prototype. He and his team will reuse a sophisticated suite of frameworks from the Advanced SEAL Delivery System project to develop a high-fidelity multiplayer simulation of a search-and-rescue operation that will use physics-based vehicular models and 3-D effects to achieve a realistic environment.

"The project does have some technical hurdles that my team hasn't had to face in the past," he says. "We'll need to use five or more monitors so that up to five students can work collaboratively while interacting with the game. This involves a distributed rendering approach that will synchronize the synthetic environment across multiple computers while at the same time allowing each student to independently interact with the system from their input device, whether it is a joystick/throttle combination or a mouse and keyboard."

For the first time, the team will also have to animate human characters. "The students will have to interview avatars [virtual representations of the game's users]," Miller says, "and the avatars will speak, blink and show emotion in response to questioning by the students."

Miller says that working on this project has opened a creative door for his team of engineers.

"Our work really focuses on modeling and simulation to conjure up a real vehicle, such as a submarine for the military," he says. "Most of these projects focus on the 'driver's education' aspect of the vehicle and don't focus on the 'fun' aspect that a game would provide. So developing the 'fun' will be new for our team."

The team is drawing heavily on the expertise of APL's mentor students and college interns. "This influx of young people really helps keep us older folks in tune with what is fun for the younger generations," Miller says.

Ultimately, he says, the students must be engaged and interested for an educational game of any kind to succeed. "If a game engages a person for more than a half hour the first time the person plays it, the game will most likely be successful," he says. "This 'magical first half-hour' must grab the student's attention and compel that student to keep playing. That's going to be a huge challenge for us."

This story appeared previously in The APL News.


Related Web site

Learning Games to Go


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