Don't fall into the virtual traps

July 29, 2005

Serious gaming could flourish if past errors are avoided, writes Robert Stone

The Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence recently organised a seminar titled Exploiting Commercial Games for Defence Applications . It attracted more than 170 participants - far exceeding the expectations of the organisers.

There is a buzz around "serious gaming", which is attracting business. It could be the next big thing in technology - if we don't blow it by repeating past errors.

Serious gaming exploits the games engines and software kits made available by the developers of popular "first-person shooter" or "role-playing" computer games, such as FarCry or Half-Life 2 . It is the focus of enormous military, commercial and healthcare interest in the US. What is significant about these games is that they allow players to generate virtual communities, weapons and adversaries, which give a game a life of its own.

Delegates saw a range of presentations from this arena, including a package that trains army surgeons to make life-saving decisions in battlefield conditions.

At national and regional levels, government bodies are launching research and development programmes to catch up with the US. These have prompted the hasty formation of academic and industrial consortia supported by small grants with almost impossible-to-achieve local wealth and job creation caveats. Elsewhere, academic institutions are vying to establish the best "serious gaming centre of excellence".

I get a sense of deja vu from all this. Didn't we see an almost identical scenario played out in the 1990s with virtual reality, or VR - once described as "the most significant technological breakthrough since the invention of television". VR was popularised by numerous technologies - head-mounted displays, instrumented gloves and motion-capture suits. By the end of the 20th century, VR was supposed to allow us to abandon the keyboard, mouse and computer monitor in favour of interfaces exploiting the skills we were born with.

Of course, this brave new world never materialised. Despite sizeable investment, expensive (and unexploited) European projects and the launch of many centres of excellence, VR delivered little. The biggest mistake with VR was to forget the human factor - the capabilities and limitations of its end users. We still use keyboards, mice and computer displays.

There is no doubt that serious gaming can deliver much more than its VR predecessor - affordability and accessibility, in particular. But to do this lessons must be learnt. Academic centres are not the answer, nor is massive early investment in large consortia.

Technology such as this has to be designed in conjunction with end users, packaged in a form they can understand and taken out to them for immediate use. In the early days of VR, innovation and user focus came from small entrepreneurial companies, most of which were sidelined as the academic community set out on its path of technological domination. A similar trend is happening today.

The interactive 3D community, through serious gaming, has a second chance.

It must not ignore the lessons of the immediate past.

Robert Stone is chair in interactive multimedia systems, department of electronic, electrical and computer engineering, Birmingham University.

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