Laura brought this to our attention this morning.  It’s a UC Davis project to create an augmented-reality sandbox that models topography and water flow with a Kinect system and projector.  Be sure to check out the videos.

“The goal of this project was to develop a real-time integrated augmented reality system to physically create topography models which are then scanned into a computer in real time, and used as background for a variety of graphics effects and simulations. The final product is supposed to be self-contained to the point where it can be used as a hands-on exhibit in science museums with little supervision.”

In other words, this is the sandbox you wish you had as a kid.  The visitor uses a hand gesture to dump water into the sandbox.  That would be the omnipotent open-palm gesture used almost universally by children to signify shooting lightning/fireballs/missiles/flaming lightning missiles from their hands.  Personally, it’s one of the first ones I try when confronted with a gesture-recognition system.

An AR sandbox lends itself to stream-table activities, but what else could it do?  With a few modifications and a palette swap, it could model volcanoes.  Sand castles could become actual castles.  Green plastic army men could re-enact historical battles, guided by projected arrows.  What else can you think of?

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is hosting an exhibition titled “The Art of Video Games.”  It includes five playable games (Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst and Flower).  Raph Koster speculated on his blog that the entry-level content might appeal most to those “who were mostly reminiscing about the Commodore 64 (based on what I overheard).”

Approximately 25 percent of the adults I know do not play video games regularly (or claim not to do so).  Of these, almost all of them feel that not playing games is a normal behavior—something you grow out of.  According to anecdotal evidence—oh, and market research by those who sell games for a living—this assertion is as wrong as they come.  Females over age 18 play—yes, play, not buy—video games more than males under 17, for example.

Where do we get our attitudes about play?  I’ve never met someone who claimed, with a smug shake of the head, to be “too old” for movies or novels (media with a similar cultural history).  How does someone maintain this attitude about video games despite usually being the only adult in the room who doesn’t play them?  Oddly, I see frequent Bejeweled and Farmville updates on Facebook from my friends who “don’t play” games.

Is the Smithsonian’s exhibition a good way to breach this barrier?  How do you reach out to those who don’t (openly) incorporate play into their identities?  I’ll need to look into this question more in the coming months.

The time has come to get my project underway. I’m developing an ecosystem-modeling game to entertain and to facilitate learning. I don’t want to make a game to teach, exactly. Too often, “educational” games tend to be dreary ordeals with a thin but shiny coat of classroom-style learning content, designed by people who a)don’t seem to play games and b)think games are primarily for children. All games teach. I’ve discussed this sort of thing before, as have numerous others before me.

There are, of course, many examples of great games designed with learning in mind. Last year, my wife spent over a week playing the original version of The Oregon Trail under a slew of self-imposed restrictions just to see how she could leverage the mechanics in her favor–like an experienced D&D player who opts to forego armor just to add challenge and complexity.

The task I have chosen to undertake (perhaps recklessly) is to create a game that stands on its own in terms of game mechanics, but mirrors reality enough to allow players to explore and broadly recreate ecosystem dynamics.

To do this, the game must be modifiable and include thorough documentation. It should allow players to, well, play with it. It should also be freely hackable for anyone who may want to build, for example, an approximation of species interactions within a specific Malaysian cloud forest (people have differing ideas of fun).

It won’t be easy, and I will need lots of help along the way. I want the game to serve as a means of entry into scientific discourse. To that end, I’d like to see a growing library of user mods ranging from challenging fictional scenarios to user-created ecosystem models based on published data. If optimal strategy in the game one day helps to reveal something about real-world animal behavior (as Fold-It aids the discovery of protein structures), I will have achieved my ultimate, maybe-I-shouldn’t-even-consider-it-possible goal.

If I don’t shoot for that goal, I’ll never know how close I can get. At this stage, I’m drawing inspiration from the concepts and mechanics of games such as Wolf Quest, Venture Arctic, Cultivation and Subspace/Continuum (the latter for its simple energy-management system and elegant-but-deep multiplayer experience).

Any and all feedback is welcome. What would you folks like to play?


After a day-long cascade of productivity, Laura completed her Ph.D. proposal this afternoon. I called her and Shawn aside for a photo (above) to celebrate the milestone. Way to go, Laura!

It’s time to do annual reporting for Oregon Sea Grant. This gives us an opportunity to hold up our impacts and say “we did this.” In other ways, it’s about as much fun as it sounds.

Speaking of fun, here’s a really quick and easy  science activity from Make: Projects. With a mason jar, some rubbing alcohol, a flashlight, a disc of dry ice and a towel, you can make a cloud chamber to observe cosmic rays in real time. You can also make a bigger, fancier one with a basketball case. Then you let the universe do its thing, for the most part. You can trust the universe.  It’s been facilitating free-choice learning activities for a while.


Last Friday, Nancy Steinberg, a freelance science writer, and I held a Science Pub Dialogue Event at Rogue Ales across the street from HMSC.  We had about 50 folks in the audience, pretty normal for the science pubs sponsored by HMSC.  But Nancy and I didn’t want to do a traditional scientist presentation. Instead, following up a project we did earlier this year in Yachats, Oregon, we wanted to create a dialogue between us and the audience around how what we know about free-choice learning can help scientists communicate their work.  The audience was probably about 1/3 scientists, 1/3 educators and 1/3 interested folks, and the dialogues worked great.  We talked together, the audience talked with us, the audience talked with each other, and the conversations continued for almost an hour after the program officially ended!

The next morning, I left to spend the week of the 15th in Vancouver, British Columbia attending the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Conference and the Vancouver Aquarium. The conference is always useful, but frankly at about 12,000 attendees, too big.  This year to make the conference more doable, I primarily attended talks and sessions sponsored by the Informal Learning Environments Special Interest Group.  Special interest groups allow you to find a home and strand of presentations within the mass of papers and talks spread out over a quarter of the downtown of the city. As a shameless plug for the Informal Learning Environments group, I’ll point out that the number of slots given to informal education and free-choice learning talks is determined by the number of folks who join the SIG and submit papers each year…

At the conference, I delivered the next in a series of papers outlining the findings from the work Jim Kisiel and I have been doing on family interactions at touch tanks for the last several years.  This talk specifically detailed the types of scientific reasoning families are engaging in, unprompted by aquarium staff, arguing that live animal encounters provide a context for scientific reasoning that may be even more productive for families than typical interactive physical science exhibits, where families’ scientific reasoning has been documented before.

After the conference, I got to sit in on a couple of education programs at the Vancouver Aquarium and gave a lunch time talk on the Free-Choice Learning Lab projects that are the subject of this very blog.  In the afternoon, I led a 2-hour workshop for staff from the aquarium’s education and interpretive staff on supporting visitor dialogues that can lead to learning.  The workshop is a combination of tools we use in the Communicating Ocean Sciences to Informal Audiences class and strategies Heidi Schmoock developed in workshops she’s been running at Cal Polytech in San Luis Obispo.  The goal was to introduce the idea of a dialogue or discussion map – a questioning strategy that helps ensure families are talking with educators, rather than being talked at, and that is specifically designed to promote the kinds of conversations that may lead to meaning making and learning.


Some of the cameras with which we’re working come in aesthetically pleasing, self-contained housings. We can fix that. The photo above shows the previously-internal microphone of an Axis M10 camera, which Kent has bent to his will using copper wire and electrical tape.

He also removed the housing from the camera itself, releasing its verdant inner being. Observe, as it perches atop the marine mammal case, naked and free as the day it was manufactured (at least before the housing went on, which presumably happened the same day):


So why, why, why did we do this? Well, we have to established not only how versatile our equipment is in its off-the-shelf condition, but how versatile it might be made through customization. In this case, we wanted to see if the internal microphone could be extended or swapped out if a situation so requires (if you’re wondering, the answer appears to be “yes”).

These devices will become part of our workplace. We have to become familiar with them, inside and out. That process may not always be pretty, but it sets the stage for better integration into our research environment.

In summary, that camera will get new clothes and it will love them.