HomeNews & PublicationsFeatured StoriesVirtual Reality Gaming Is Serious Business at APL 

August 29, 2007

Virtual Reality Gaming Is Serious Business at APL

A small group of engineers and computer programmers in the Lab'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.

VR Gaming programmersThe collaboration — which also includes the Johns Hopkins Center for Technology Education (CTE), the Education Arcade at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 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."

D. Peloff, the program director of emerging technologies at CTE, says 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 (ASDS/OT) 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 ASDS 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], and the avatars will speak, blink and show emotion in response to questioning by the students," Miller explains.

Miller says 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, Miller 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."

For additional information about Learning Games to Go, visit http://www.thinkport.org/technology/gotgame/default.tp.