Month: October 2014

Life Connected to Life: How to Revolutionize Environmental Education

There are many educational games out there that do their best to teach people about the environment.  And many of them do a great job.

For example, I really like how Earth Day Canada put together their EcoKids website.  The games on EcoKids are mostly simple simulations with engaging action and puzzle-based mechanics, and it’s great how they blend the computer-based games with physical-world activities (e.g., play a game on the computer then go outside and do some recycling).  Games that encourage people to make positive changes to their physical world, improving the environment for everyone.

In fact, both the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have sites that promote environmental education through games.  It’s inspiring for me to see large governmental agencies exploring innovative ways to protect the environment and educate the public.

But there’s another level of immersive environmental education we haven’t even touched yet.

wshedcrosscut2

First, a key fact about Nature that we often forget.

Nature likes to hide things.  Particularly when something is wrong.  

It’s a fundamental trait that has developed in pretty much every species on the planet.  Are you sick?  Weak?  Injured?  Well, you better hide it as much as possible, otherwise something will come along, notice you’re indisposed, and then eat you for lunch.  This trait also manifests itself in entire networks of interdependent and related organisms (i.e., ecosystems).  By the time it’s easy to observe a systemic problem, the damage is often irreversible.

So, it’s not enough for us to be well educated and observant.  We need superhuman powers to help us visualize what’s really happening in Nature.

I believe artificial life combined with augmented reality is the magic key.  We can help Nature tell us her secrets by creating artificial life forms directly connected to all the data repositories we’ve already created for collecting and tracking environmental data.  Imagine the appearance and behaviors of these artificial life forms changing based on these data, generating powerful human-observable moments.  And finally, imagine these artificial life forms living in an augmented reality space overlaid on the natural world.

For example, take the beautiful concept of the Kodama from the movie Princess Mononoke.

kodama on tree

Kodama are small mystical creatures living in the forest that represent the spirits of all the trees.  Their behavior and appearance in the movie is directly related to the health of all the trees they inhabit.  For example, when the trees get sick, the kodama can be seen falling from the air and dissolving into the ground.

Now, imagine walking up to a tree in the physical world.

oak-tree

Is that tree really healthy?  Not sure, since trees (like most life forms) are pretty good at hiding things (until it’s too late).  Is the forest in which this tree lives getting enough water?  Is the water table polluted?

Sure, you could pull environmental data up on your smartphone and look at graphs and charts and summarized reports.

But those are all cold data, with no sense of life to them.

Rather, imagine watching the data express itself through a family of Kodama that live around the tree.  Imagine looking through your smart phone into an augmented reality space full of artificial life with which you can interact and communicate.

Oh no, all the Kodama are brown and withered!  That means drought!   Oh, they’re all walking over to that other tree.  There must be water over there.  Wait, they’re mutating into something weird.  Some kind of pollution?  The imaginative possibilities, let alone the entertaining and engaging gaming scenarios, are endless.

Effective learning and true understanding comes from emotional resonance.

And nothing resonates more with human beings than life connected to life.

Take care,
-John “Pathfinder” Lester

Advertisements

Is “Artificial Life Game” an Oxymoron?

langtoncaArtificial Life (Alife) began with a colorful collection of biologists, robot engineers, computer scientists, artists, and philosophers. It is a cross-disciplinary field, although many believe that biologists have gotten the upper-hand on the agendas of Alife. This highly-nuanced debate is alluded to in this article.

Games

What better way to get a feel for the magical phenomenon of life than through simulation games! (You might argue that spending time in nature is the best way to get a feel for life; I would suggest that a combination of time with nature and time with well-crafted simulations is a great way to get deep intuition. And I would also recommend reading great books like The Ancestor’s Tale :)

Simulation games can help build intuition on subjects like adaptation, evolution, symbiosis, inheritance, swarming behavior, food chains….the list goes on.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 7.48.02 PMScreen Shot 2014-10-19 at 12.24.54 PMOn the more abstract end of the spectrum are simulation-like interactive experiences involving semi-autonomous visual stuff (or sound) that generates novelty. Kinetic art that you can touch, influence, and witness lifelike dynamics can be more than just aesthetic and intellectually stimulating.

These interactive experiences can also build intuition and insight about the underlying forces of nature that come together to oppose the direction of entropy (that ever-present tendency for things in the universe to decay).

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 7.58.33 PM

On the less-abstract end of the spectrum, we have virtual pets and avatars (a subject I discussed at a keynote I gave at VISIGRAPP Barcelona).

“Hierarchy Hinders” –  Lesson from Spore

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.18.59 PMWill Wright, the designer of Spore, is a celebrated simulation-style game designer who introduced many Alife concepts in the “Sim” series of games. Many of us worried that his epic Spore would encounter some challenges, considering that Maxis had been acquired by Electronic Arts. The Sims was quite successful, but Spore fell short of expectations. Turns out there is a huge difference between building a digital dollhouse game and building a game about evolving lifeforms.

Also, mega-game corporations have their share of social hierarchy, with well-paid executives at the top and sweat shop animators and code monkeys at the bottom. Hierarchy (of any kind) is generally not friendly to artificial life.

For blockbuster games, there are expectations of reliable, somewhat repeatable behavior, highly-crafted game levels, player challenges, scoring, etc. Managing expectations for artificial life-based games is problematic. It’s also hard to market a game which is essentially a bunch of game-mechanics rolled into one. Each sub-game features a different “level of emergence” (see the graph below for reference). Spore presents several slices of emergent reality, with significant gaps in-between. Spore may have also suffered partly due to overhyped marketing.

Artificial Life is naturally and inherently unpredictable. It is close cousins with chaos theory, fractals, emergence, and uh…life itself.

Emergence

alife graphAt the right is a graph I drew which shows how an Alife simulation (or any emergent system) creates novelty, creativity, adaptation, and emergent behavior. This emergence grows out of the base level inputs into the system. At the bottom are atoms, molecules, and bio-chemistry. Simulated protein-folding for discovering new drugs might be an example of a simulation that explores the space of possibilities and essentially pushes up to a higher level (protein-folding creates the 3-dimensional structure that makes complex life possible).

The middle level might represent some evolutionary simulation whereby new populations emerge that find a novel way to survive within a fitness landscape. On the higher level, we might place artificial intelligence, where basic rules of language, logic, perception, and internal modeling of the world might produce intelligent behavior.

In all cases, there is some level of emergence that takes the simulation to a higher level. The more emergence, the more the simulation is able to exhibit behaviors on the higher level. What is the best level of reality to create an artificial life game? And how much emergence is needed for it to be truly considered “artificial life”?

Out Of Control

Can a mega-corporation like Electronic Arts give birth to a truly open-ended artificial life game? Alife is all about emergence. An Alife engineer or artist expects the unexpected. Surprise equals success. And the more unexpected, the better. Surprise, emergent novelty, and the unexpected – these are not easy things to manage…or to build a brand around – at least not in the traditional way.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 9.04.07 PMMaybe the best way to make an artificial life game is to spread the primordial soup out into the world, and allow “crowdsourced evolution” of emergent lifeforms.  OpenWorm comes to mind as a creative use of crowdsourcing.

What if we replaced traditional marketing with something that grows organically within the culture of users? What if, in addition to planting the seeds of evolvable creatures, we also planted the seeds of an emergent culture of users? This is not an unfamiliar kind problem to many internet startups.

Are you a fan of artificial life-based games? God games? Simulations for emergence? What is your opinion of Spore, and the Sims games that preceded it?

This is a subject that I have personally been interested in for my entire career. I think there are still unanswered questions. And I also think that there is a new genre of artificial game that is just waiting to be invented…

…or evolved in the wild.

Onward and Upward.

-Jeffrey

Wiglet Diversity: A Spectrum of the Wonderfully Strange

strange-01

The first thing you’ll notice about Wiglets is that…well, let’s be honest, they look kind of strange.

strange-02

That’s because Wiglets are not hand-drawn cookie-cutter characters.

They’re artificial life forms that look and behave a certain way because of their genetics.

strange-03

They’re neither homogenized nor pasteurized.

And unlike video games where you have limited character creator options (Choose from these 5 hairstyles!  How about these 7 different noses?), a Wiglet’s DNA can recombine through breeding to create a highly unpredictable range of physical and behavioral diversity.

strange-04

Kind of like real life.

Which is exactly the point.

In the near future you’ll be hearing more from us about a Wiglet breeder app that will let you experiment with just how diverse they can be.

We think you’ll fall in love with their quirky appearance and behaviors.

Not because they look like something familiar and common.

But because they don’t.

 

– John “Pathfinder” Lester

 

 

Augmented Reality is Inevitable

sculpturePost-humanism sounded scary to me at first. The idea that humans will turn into cyborgs: half machine-half animal; the idea that humans will merge with technology to the point of becoming unrecognizable – something other than the soft, fuzzy artist/poet/lovers that we once were.

But there’s a nicer version of post-humanism.

Medical and information technology are enhancing our bodies and our minds in many ways. A hip replacement; a vaccine against polio; the prompt answer to a factual question by Siri or Google using a hand-held device; the ability to project your expressive body language to a loved one on the other side of the planet. These are enhancements to human potential.

The conversation on post-humanism, in my opinion, should not be centered on “if”, but “how”. Technology is a fact of our species. Fish swim. Birds fly, and humans make technology. And if that technology makes us smarter and more creative, then in a sense one might say that it makes us more human.

AUGMENTED REALITY

Augmented reality is defined as the overlay of visual (or audible) information over a view of the real, physical world. While virtual reality replaces the real world with a simulated one, augmented reality modifies, or enhances one’s perception of the real world.

Augmented reality is on the rise in gaming and education research. It’s quite exciting, and I think it’s inevitable that it will become a normal part of our future.

As educators, artists, and engineers, it is our job to make sure that augmented reality makes us more human, not more machine. It’s a theme that comes up for me all the time, and it is also very relevant as so many people find themselves sucked into computer-mediated social networks or virtual reality games that are hyperreal and addictive.

BACK TO NATURE

Fantasy and escape are still valid, important parts of our human nature. But perhaps it’s time to look at how gaming and computer simulation can bring us back into closer connection with each other and with the natural world.

This is one of the goals of Wiggle Planet, which features free-range animated characters that are being designed to bound from augmented books and games into the world – and back again. This cross-reality nature is enabled by dynamic data in the cloud (currently in development) that makes them exist both in our imaginations as well as in real-world locations where they can be found, like a rare mushroom or hummingbird.

Our Kickstarter Campaign gave us an initial boost for the creation of a book that will bring these characters (wiglets) to life in the context of a nonverbal story about nature, finding your place in it, and how we (post-humans) can be a part of a more connected world – in harmony with nature.

We are a visual species. Any technology that enhances our visual experience of the world and allows us to “see” a deeper reality, is a great advancement, as I see it. For this reason, I believe that augmented reality can be a wonderful addition to our post-human future.

-Jeffrey Ventrella