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Serious Gaming

The term "serious gaming" might seem to be an oxymoron, like "static electrons." But in today's pragmatic research world, investigators from numerous Georgia Tech units are appropriating technologies, practices and even equipment from both digital and real-world games. Then they're applying those gaming techniques to defense, industry, education, health care and more.

Today's game technologies are often highly user-configurable — through a process called "modding" (short for modification) — and that adaptability helps make them useful for research purposes.

At the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), a research team is using game-engine technology to support an ambitious program to develop tiny mobile robots that are both intelligent and interactive.

The overall effort is called the Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST) Collaborative Technology Alliance Program. It's hoped that this five-year effort will result in rolling, hopping, and even flying devices that could aid the military and other agencies in combat, disaster relief and other tasks.

The MAST research program, which includes Georgia Tech, 13 other universities and BAE Systems Inc., is sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. GTRI and the College of Computing are among several Georgia Tech units involved in the program.

To date, no truly autonomous robots actually exist, much less tiny ones that can move cooperatively through unpredictable environments. To gain insight into the many challenges involved in such technology, researchers are turning to game-development techniques, said GTRI principal research engineer Lora Weiss.

"To design micro-autonomous systems, we first need to explore in a virtual way how they might behave in the real world and interact with one other," she said. "And a good way to start exploring them is with game engines, because you can examine robotic systems using the synthetic entities found in many game worlds."

By combining a widely available computer-game engine with open-source software called USARSim — short for urban search and rescue simulation — the GTRI engineers can simulate many challenges that robotic hardware might encounter. Modifying game parameters to suit their purposes, engineers can rapidly construct a three-dimensional world — complete with reasonably accurate 3D physics — to test a variety of concepts.

Other related areas of GTRI research include a team of engineers is developing a research device capable of analyzing physical stresses on the arms of workers in poultry plants by utilizing a Nintendo Wii game-console remote controller, known popularly as the Wiimote; using artificial intelligence techniques to help create "drama managers." to develop simulations for certain types of military training; using gaming elements to improve machine-learning technology; and more. Read a detailed case study on GTRI's efforts here.

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