Creating the Immersive Web

We all surf the web for education, gaming, and shopping. The web is a massive set of data and information that we can see on our computers in the form of simulated pages. Pages contain text, audio, images, and video and so the web appears as a type of glorified, interactive book. But does it always need to look like a book with pages and paragraphs?

Dr. Paul Fishwick
Dr. Paul Fishwick

Professor Paul Fishwick doesn’t think so, and he is wrapping up a Spring class called Virtual Analog Computing. In that class, computer scientists, artists and designers work together in teams much like people do in the game and film industry.

The goal of the class for students to explore the normally hidden, or obscure, artifacts of computer science but within game engines that simulate physical reality. The students are using Minecraft, a hugely popular game where players collaborate and mine for blocks–similar to Lego but with far more expressive capability.

The players enter the world and are first greeted with a Minecraft version of the new Arts & Technology (ATEC) building being constructed at The University of Texas at Dallas. ATEC is poised as a new venture envisioned and designed by Dean Dennis Kratz and ATEC Director Thomas Linehan. The building connects arts, humanities, engineering, science, and technology within a 160,000 sq. ft. building on campus. Faculty and students from these disciplines will work closely with each other.

Back to the concept of the web and its pages of information. What if the web was immersive and you could walk or fly through it? This is a core assumption within Dr. Fishwick’s class. The virtual ATEC building within the Minecraft environment serves to anchor the player in a land of multiple virtual machines representing computer science (CS) concepts, vital to the national push toward STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. A player can walk around the virtual building and then be transported to areas exhibiting virtual machines.

For example, within the Sound Lab, the player can explore models and programs whose function are related to sound and music. Rather than the programs being shown as text, they take on physical, analog, form. Thus, the virtual ATEC building with its teleport-enabled model areas becomes a next generation web page. The page becomes immersive. The hyperlinks become teleports between locations.

Fishwick, who holds faculty appointments in ATEC and Computer Science says that this exhibition shows what is possible when blending disciplines to assist in STEM education. Since there are millions of MineCraft players, the idea is to bring the STEM content directly into their pre-existing cultural space.

“When you get CS and ATEC students working together in this way, we can reinvent the web, how we interact with it, and how people can learn core CS concepts”, Fishwick says. “The students in the class have made all of this possible. They worked together in teams at first, and then as a complete class to build the environment in Minecraft. We are also grateful to Hunt Construction company for working with us in obtaining the basic design files for the new building.”

There are immediate plans to host this space, including the Minecraft virtual environment, via the ATEC web page. Get ready to surf the immersive web.


This is article is part of the Philosophy Sandbox series authored by Paul Fishwick.

Interview with Sam Tuggle, Co-Creator of Grapple

Sam Tuggle is an ATEC graduate student and a member of Tuesday Society Games, the creators of Grapple, a 3D platforming computer game currently open to voting on Steam Greenlight. Here, Tuggle provides insights into the development of Grapple and discusses his future plans and takeaways from the process.

More information and a downloadable demo of Grapple can be found at grapple-game.com.

Q: Please summarize the game in a paragraph or two.

A: My favorite one-sentence description of Grapple is “Spider-Man in Space.” Grapple is a third person 3D platformer where you get to play as a ball of goo in space. The goal is to get to the black hole at the end of each level.

The ball of goo has two incredibly powerful abilities at his disposal: the ability to walk on any surface, floors, ceilings, and walls, and the ability to project parts of itself to grab on to surfaces and swing around. Using these abilities, the player must navigate the huge and sparse levels and get through progressively more difficult levels.

Q: Who are all the team members working on the project, and what are their roles?

A: The team members are as follows:

  • Sam Tuggle – Programmer, 3D Artist, and Level Designer
  • Brian Chancellor – Level Design and Menus
  • Alex Rothenberg – Level Design and 2D Work
  • Marvin Whitehurst – Sound Effects
  • Andrew Grant – Music

Q: How did you get the idea for the game?

A: I came up with the idea while on a winter vacation at my parents’ place. My folks don’t have a very good computer, and I don’t have a laptop to work on, so I have plenty of time with notepad to elaborate on ideas I get.

Q: When did development begin? Was it originally for a class assignment, and if not, what was your purpose or goal in producing it?

A: I started development in the summer before senior year, so 2011. I was learning how to program in UDK, and I had done a number of tutorials already, but was looking for a larger project to do. I figured it would be an interesting experiment to give this game design a shot and worked on it all summer long. About three weeks before summer ended, I had most of the core gameplay developed, but no levels or art designed at all. I had been moving around in a technicolor, curved box the entire time. I put it off for a semester until I got to my capstone my senior spring semester, when I brought on Brian and Alex and we spent the semester developing levels for the game.

Q: How long has Grapple been on Greenlight? Has there been any considerable support for it there? What is needed for it to become available for purchase on Steam, and do you think it’s likely that it will get there?

A: Grapple has been on Greenlight for about five months now. We put it up around two weeks after Greenlight came out. While I respect the idea for Greenlight, the massive influx of games that were placed on it when it was free to post, as well as the very minimal amount of support that games have on it, it really didn’t get us much.

While I don’t know how much I am supposed to talk about Greenlight, until recently, game developers on Greenlight didn’t get much more information than the people who voted on them. Instead of requiring a minimum number of votes to get on Steam, which it actually used on release, it is more focused popularity, mainly rating each game from its number of views, positive and negative reviews, etc., to find the 100 most popular games.

It seems that Valve then periodically looks for what games are a viable fit on Steam and then vets them, allowing them to let players decide which games look worthy, but still being the final gate in case something goes wrong. Unfortunately, in Grapple‘s current position, it’s not going to be on Steam. We aren’t getting nearly enough eyes on it.

Q: Are you pursuing any other methods to distribute or market the game? What is your current user base, if there is one?

A: We already submitted it to the IGF Student Competition and didn’t make it, unfortunately. Since Grapple is such a small game, it’s not like we have a big following or anything. What we really were concerned with was getting people to play the game, so we thought that releasing the demo for free was fine.

Unless a miracle happens, it’s not going on Steam, which controls a absolutely massive amount of the digital download space. Most likely, we are going to release the full game shortly so whoever wants to play it can.

Q: Do you have any future plans for the game, such as expansions or sequels?

A: Right now, Grapple is not going anywhere. We love the game, but to say that we had a really hard time adding to it is an understatement. The game is largely driven by its very minimalistic take on not only its art, but its level design.

The goo ball, while being very fun to play, is amazingly overpowered when placed in traditional spaces. As I said, people should hopefully see the full game released for free soon if they want much more Grapple.

Q: What are your plans and your teammates’ plans for other current or future projects?

A: Grapple taught us a lot about building a full game and all the random junk that goes with it. While this team has no formal plans, we are always working on something and if we get rolling with a larger project, I have no doubts that we will get together again and try and making the best games we can.

Q: Do you have any additional comments or topics you would like to talk about?

A: I know that most of ATEC is concerned with just making a good game, which is what we should be concerned with, but let me tell ya’, it’s hard getting people to play Grapple. “Marketing” is considered a dirty word until you are having a difficult time trying to get people to look at your game.

We felt we made a really fun game to play, but it lacked the visual flare and easily appealing gameplay that would get people to bother downloading it. Once we got someone to play the game, they would really enjoy it, but before that, it was hard to get anyone to take notice.

UT Dallas Building to be Named for Philanthropist Edith O’Donnell

The Arts and Technology (ATEC) building under construction at The University of Texas at Dallas will bear the name of one of Texas’ most generous philanthropists in honor of her long-standing dedication to higher education, scientific research and the arts.

The Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building is a 155,000-square-foot facility at UT Dallas that will house programs in visual arts, emerging media technology and multimedia communications, as well as a 1,200-seat lecture hall.

The Board of Regents of The University of Texas System approved the naming Thursday.

Known for their civic and business leadership, Edith O’Donnell and her husband, Peter, and the O’Donnell Foundation they established, have given exceptionally generous support to UT Dallas since 1984. During the last 30 years, the couple’s foundation has contributed more than $600 million to support scientific research and education in America.

“Naming this building in honor of Edith O’Donnell reflects our admiration, gratitude and respect for Mrs. O’Donnell. She and her husband, Peter, and their foundation have made a significant difference through their support to higher education, scientific innovation and the arts at UT Dallas and throughout the state and country,” said Dr. David E. Daniel, president of UT Dallas.

“Thousands of students and faculty will benefit from the facilities within this building, and its outstanding architectural features will grace our campus for years to come. We’re proud that Edith O’Donnell and her altruism will be associated with this jewel.”

Designed as a showcase for the visual arts and a highly adaptable technology hub for UT Dallas’s ATEC program, the $60 million building is slated for completion this fall.

The Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building is in the heart of the campus, adjacent to the library and facing the mall and reflecting pools designed by Peter Walker. The building includes an exterior courtyard that will feature a natural habitat. Inside are classrooms for game design, sound design and visual arts, conference rooms, 2-D drawing and painting art studios, 3-D art studios, a recording studio, and photography and print-making labs, among others.

“The O’Donnells have been committed to the development of UT Dallas’s academic programs throughout the University’s history,” said Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, executive vice president and provost. “Their support has been transformative and has contributed greatly to our success as a rising national research institution. To name this building for Edith O’Donnell is a fitting tribute to such generous friends and partners.”

The Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building will be dedicated Nov. 7.

Peter O’Donnell earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of the South in Tennessee and a master’s degree in banking and finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Edith O’Donnell earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from The University of Texas at Austin.

The O’Donnell Foundation is the fifth largest independent foundation in Dallas. It primarily supports engineering, science and math education along with arts programs. The foundation has been a leader in support of advanced placement programs for high school students and for advancing K-12 education, in addition to its support of higher education.