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Nov 8

Peter Brantley

Peter Brantley

NASA Plays Games

nasa_avatar.jpgAt the DLF Fall Forum, we unfortunately missed a presentation from NASA's Daniel Laughlin, who wound up stuck in traffic on I95 for way too many hours (not the worst travel incident of the Forum, but in the top 5). Nonetheless, Dan kindly sent his slides, which we are making available via SlideShare.

Dan and I first met at a conference at the Hewlett Foundation, sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation and the Federation of American Scientists. When I saw Dan across the room, sitting in front of a large Windows laptop with a very impressive-size screen, with a back littered by WOW and gaming stickers, I thought Kaufman had found a gamer to attend the summit. They had; I just didn't imagine he worked at Goddard Space Flight Center.

greyark_hightower.jpg NASA is interested in immersive synthetic environments (ISEs) because they have the capacity of providing greatly enriched educational opportunities and outreach. The organization maintains an Immersive Synthetic Environment Research (NISER) team that has members from NASA sites across the country; it meets monthly. NASA uses SecondLife for much of its internal collaboration; as Dan notes, there were virtual environments others before SL, and others will follow, but right now Second Life is the best commercial, widely available ISE for education, training and collaboration.

The power and intent of NASA's vision became more real to me after I watched a YouTube video that Dan forwarded entitled "NASA's CoLab Second Life Mission." The vision of earth-bound avatars being able to converse in real-time with a next-generation Moon- or Mars-mission astronaut, asking questions within an ISE about what rests on the surface or is flowing across the skies of a distant body in our solar system is an incredibly compelling one, all the more so because it is not beyond the realm of possibility in the next decade.

Dan says:

When NASA returns to the moon in 2020, the people of Earth will be able to share that experience. Not just through the passive medium of television like the last time we went to the moon, but through the virtual experience of a persistent immersive synthetic environment. Kids are starting to use PISE at a very early age already. Nickelodeon and Disney each run their own online worlds. The children who play in those worlds are going to expect more from both their work and play as adult than 2D interactivity. They will expect 3D the same way people today expect cable television and those in the 1970s expected color television.

Dan's slides point out that there are probably between 20-30 million Americans who are involved with a ISE, whereas only around 26 million play golf (I would personally wager there is not a lot of overlap between those communities, but who knows).

Immersive environments are inherently social; they provide a sense of place and togetherness that more closely approximates the "real" than any other technology we have been able to generate, and yet their evolution is just beginning. We are on the threshold of being able to generate new virtual environments with alternative physics engines, flexible representations, radically different bandwidth requirements, and interoperability.

NASA will generate a Learning Technologies call in FY2008 to help deliver on their eEducation roadmap. Integral to the roadmap is a set of components that will help build a firm foundation for an immersive, synthetic 3D Web application for NASA science education: a Massively Multi-player Online Game (MMOG) that acts as a front-end to a larger synthetic environment; a developers toolkit to support expansion; and a powerful physics engine to support accurate science and engineering concepts and challenges. These components are intended to support both formal and informal education.

This is a great thing to see come out of NASA; they are to be applauded for their continuing embrace of distant horizons that will be our near-lying shores before we can possibly imagine.

tags: games, immersive, MMOG, MMORPG, NASA, SecondLife, virtual  | comments: 8   | Sphere It


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Taran Rampersad (Nobody Fugazi)   [11.08.07 09:52 PM]

I'd love to hear how that Synthetic world is coming along, as was mentioned on Slashdot -

Jack Jackson   [11.09.07 08:34 AM]

Yeah, lets have bureaucrats muscle their way into education and create a giant pipeline to pump NASA content into schools across the country. That is just such great idea! Are we in a race with China to do this or something? To gain complete control of the classroom and the task of indoctrinating our children?

Ever look at NASA education materials? Everything NASA does is just so wonderful! It doesn't really matter if students learn anything from their curriculum any more as long as they remember that NASA controls our nation's technology (they are our friendly fascist NAZI's). It is just not that important that NASA couldn't do a thing without our industry (they never mention that). Far more important to make sure that our children think NASA is behind it all!!! The galactic uber meisters of all things technology.

And having students experience physics through a tube will be just so very much better than having children outside crashing, throwing, colliding, and getting skinned up in the bad old real world to gain understanding and intuition.

And oh my, the space shuttle is just so cool, NASA has virtually no reason to be using it, and it only costs 1 to 2 billion a pop to launch, and look kids, isn't neat how we can play spaceman?

And NASA is just so very large and important to education because they are now using the Internet to pump their federal propaganda, and can reach virtually all of our classrooms. Without NASA, kids would have to use their imaginations for inspiration.

No doubt we need to keep giving NASA money to suck-up and burn through tax dollars so that the feds can finish the task of federalizing education like they have done to our aerospace industry. Even better, one day soon NASA will go back to the moon and put a base there so they can spend even more money playing spaceman. And with virtual reality NASA can get an even bigger leg up on their propaganda efforts to keep the money faucet on.

But wait, with virtual reality available, NASA won't even really have to go there, they can fake the whole thing and still get the bucks. Tomorrow the moon, then Mar, Jupiter, ... they will all be within reach. And don't worry, they will have fake press conferences to tell us all about it in the media.

The feds will be in control of our destiny, the future is bright indeed!

Sebastien Grossesse   [11.09.07 02:52 PM]

The winner of all this work will be the video game industry , for sure!!

Tim Bailey   [11.09.07 03:09 PM]

Hooray! NASA is using FREE, EXISTING, POPULAR technology to allow the general public to get a better understanding of space science. This is exactly the type of smart outreach we need to see from NASA. PDFs and printed booklets just won't cut it anymore for really engaging the public. Plus, now we can all go to the Moon and Mars along with the astronauts! What better way to get someone interested in science than to allow then to see and *participate* in the adventure?

I agree that we need to encourage real-world activity and exercise in our children. This is not meant to replace hands-on activities. Using virtual environments allows people to go places that you *can't* go!

Plus, if it saves a few dollars on airfare to have meetings online instead of in person, I'm all for it! There are plenty of other ways NASA needs to spend those dollars. With less than 1% of the national budget, they need all of the cost-saving help they can get to keep science missions going!

Great article!

Daniel Laughlin   [11.09.07 07:16 PM]

Thanks for the post, Peter. I want to point out that the video is the work of Earth Primbee (his SL name) and is a completely volunteer effort that we appreciate very much. It really captures the spirit of the Colab in Second Life. Also, while NASA is experimenting with collaboration in SL, it's premature to say that it is yet wide spread internally even though our NISER team does have members at seven Centers now.

I deeply appreciate the chance to share the slides. Next time I'll plan to show up a day early:)

Troy McConaghy   [11.10.07 11:13 AM]

Anyone who's interested in keeping tabs on what NASA is doing in virtual worlds is welcome to attend the weekly meetings that happen on Tuesdays at 1:00 PM Pacific Time in the Second Life sim named 'NASA CoLab'. They welcome and encourage participation with the general public. Those meetings have been going on for over a year now and are a great way to meet others with similar interests.

Andrew Hoppin   [11.10.07 06:33 PM]

If you're interested in the other online community building work that we're doing in the NASA CoLab program, please check out our program website at

Christian Scholz / Tao Takashi   [11.11.07 07:32 AM]

It's great to see this post on here as e.g. Spaceport Alpha and the newer islands around it always have been a great Second Life project. It's a great example of how to reach out to a wider community and in fact I use it all the time when showing people around in Second Life.

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