Bill Tomlinson is an Assistant Professor of Informatics and Drama at the University of California, Irvine, where he teaches in the ACE (Arts Computation Engineering) graduate program. Previous interactive projects have been shown at SIGGRAPH, Ars Electronica, the Game Developers Conference, the ZKM Future Cinema exhibition and other venues, and have been reviewed by CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Sculpture Magazine, Scientific American Frontiers, the LA Times, Wired.com and the BBC. In addition his animated film, Shaft of Light, screened at the Sundance Film Festival and was distributed by the Anti-Defamation League in its Anti-Bias/Diversity Catalog. He holds an A.B. in Biology from Harvard College, an M.F.A. in Experimental Animation from CalArts, and S.M. and Ph.D. degrees from the MIT Media Lab.
Heterogeneous Animated Characters Help Connect Games to the Real World
This Interactive Exhibit describes research in heterogeneous animated characters, and suggests that this kind of character could be an effective tool for building participatory educational simulations. Heterogeneous characters are animated entities that inhabit a hybrid world of computational devices (e.g., workstations, notebooks, handhelds) and can move freely among these devices. Because they are not tied to one specific device, these characters help to bridge the gap between the real world and the virtual world. By strengthening the connection between these two worlds, heterogeneous characters could help to make it clear that behavioral patterns learned in a virtual world could be relevant to the real world as well.
The Virtual Raft Project, developed by Professor Tomlinson's research group at UCI, offers an example of an interactive exhibit that features heterogeneous characters. In this exhibit, communities of animated humanoid characters live on several workstation monitors ("islands" of virtual space). These characters are not able to move from virtual island to virtual island because they are separated from each other by a gulf of real space. When a human participant carries a Tablet PC up to one of the islands, one of the characters on that island can jump from the workstation screen onto the screen of the Tablet PC. The Tablet PC then serves as a "virtual raft" that the participant can use to carry the character to another island. Because the characters are able to jump seamlessly and wirelessly from a workstation monitor to a mobile Tablet PC, they appear to exist independent of any single platform, belonging to both the real and the virtual world.
The Virtual Raft Project currently offers a simple color theory learning game, in which each of three islands has a bonfire on it - one red, one green and one blue. Each island also has three characters on it, who carry torches of the same color as the bonfire. Whenever a character moves to a new island, it adds its torch color to the bonfire, changing its color. So, for example, if a red character visits the green island, the green bonfire will turn yellow.
A second project based on the same platform is currently under development. This "EcoRaft Project" will explore ecological interactions among animal and plant species on several islands. The project is a collaboration with Lynn Carpenter, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCI, and two regional science centers.
Heterogeneous characters are one of the core design elements on both of the Virtual Raft and the EcoRaft projects. These characters could be useful tools for building other games and exhibits that help people learn about real world phenomena in a hybrid real-virtual space. By crossing the boundary between the real world and the virtual world, heterogeneous characters may help people to connect the actions that they learn about in the virtual world to the corresponding real world actions.