The funny thing about having the money to revise an exhibit that’s already installed is that, well, there’s already a version out there that people are using, so it sometimes falls to lower priority. Even if you know there are a lot of things that could be better about it. Even if, as I said, the money is in hand to update it. That’s another thing about outreach being still sort of the afterthought of scientific grants; even when the scientists have to report on their grant progress, if the outreach effort isn’t in that report, well, the grant agencies aren’t always so concerned about that.

So we’re trying to revise our salmon fisheries exhibit, and we have a concept, but we have to constantly remind ourselves to make progress on it. It’s an item on my list that is “Important, but not Urgent,” (one of those Seven Habits of Highly Effective People things), and it keeps being shoved out for the Urgent but Not Important and even Not Urgent, Not Important (but way more interesting!) things. I think it’s like revising a paper; sometimes, the work it takes to come up with the ideas in the first place is far more interesting than more nitpicky revisions. And, again, a lot less urgent. So, we’re setting interim milestones to make progress: 1) we have our visualization collaborator working on new images, 2) we have text to re-organize and re-write, and 3) we have a basic logic about the new version that we’ve sent to the developers so they can write the automated data collection tool that records what a user does and when and for how long. So, we feel confident in progress since we’ve farmed out 1 and 3, but that still leaves #2 for us to chip away at. And sometimes, that’s what it takes. A little bit of time here, a little bit there, and eventually, there’s a lot less to get done and the task seems less overwhelming. Maybe the blog will help keep us accountable for getting this exhibit done by … the end of the summer?

We heard recently that our developer contractors have decided they have to abandon their efforts to make the first facial recognition system they investigated work. It was a tough call; they had put a lot of effort into it, thinking many times if they could just tweak this and alter that, they would get better performance than 60%. Alas, they finally decided it was not going to happen, at least without a ridiculous amount of further effort for the eventual reward. So, they are taking a different tack, starting over, almost, though they have lots of lessons learned from the first go-round.

I think this indecision about when it makes sense to try and fix the leaking ship vs. abandon ship and find another is a great parallel with exhibit development. Sometimes, you have a great idea that you try with visitors, and it flops. You get some good data, though, and see a way you can try it again. You make your changes. It flops again, though maybe not quite as spectacularly. Just enough better to give you hope. And so on … until you have to decide to cut bait and either redesign something for that task entirely or, if you’re working with a larger exhibition, find another piece to satisfy whatever learning or other goals you had in mind for the failed piece.

In either situation, it’s pretty heartbreaking to let go of all that investment. When I first started working in prototyping, this happened to our team designing the Making Models exhibition at the Museum of Science, Boston. As an intern, I hadn’t invested anything in the failed prototype, but I could see the struggle in the rest of the team, and it made such an impression that I recall it all these years later. Ultimately, the final exhibit looks rather different from what I remember, but its success is also a testament to the power of letting go. Hopefully, we’ll eventually experience that success with our facial recognition setups!

In my living room sit several boxes of LEGOs awaiting desecration. Over the weekend, I must find a way to contain the cheerful, rainbow-colored dust that this gruesome operation yields.

I have decided to give my game the working title “Deme.” I feel the word more or less sums up what the game is about, and I felt the need to call my project something other than “the game.” It feels more real, and real is what it will have to be before terribly long.

A sticking point in the concept is how we should handle mating and aggression. My instinct is to portray these things as they are, to the best of my ability. I have a couple of reasons. First, wild animals are not subject to our cultural notions of propriety. Second, these things are kind of what the game is about. It would feel weird blotting them out.

However, Deme is going to be available to a general audience. For an age bracket that might not know the ins and outs of reproduction (so to speak), these elements will need careful presentation. Unplanned family discussions about where babies come from are not among my learning goals.

A child might play the game, with the guidance of a parent or teacher, to learn why elk are important. An adult might play to see if she can breed a super-squirrel or beat her personal record for screech owl polyamory. Both learners have different goals and perhaps very different approaches to games in general.

The experience of playing a given game differs from person to person, and from instance to instance. Players can define their own roles and experiences within the rules of the game. This may make our work easier in some ways and harder in others.

Some of these issues can’t be addressed realistically until we get into technical details, but it’s worth starting the conversation now.

Kent got a new toy recently. It’s a kit by Industrial Fiber Optics, Inc. called “Adventures in Fiber Optics.” If you’re like me, fiber optics don’t exactly signify “adventure.” They may be vital components of adventurey things like airplanes and MI6 gadgets, but they don’t get your heart racing on their own:



But wait! When Kent gets done with this kit, it will become an interactive element of the Life History Transmitter exhibit. If history has taught us anything, it’s that Kent can basically deconstruct and rebuild fun itself. I won’t be moping long.

Meanwhile, Mark and I are playing with LEGOs. By “playing with,” I mean “damaging with power tools.” They’re going into the wave tank, so they should be somewhat destructible. This requires us to undermine their defining characteristic of not falling apart. A Dremel tool works well for this. The tough part is that damaging LEGOs sort of hurts. LEGOs became an internal currency of my very imagination during childhood. Defacing them feels like some sort of crime under the jurisdiction of my brain’s Secret Service.

As with Kent’s fiber optics kit, the work should be well worth it in the end. You’ll be able to play with our toys soon.


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 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?