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Apr 25 2012

Handing out the keys to the spaceship: Changing the Game at NC State University

The future Gaming Lab in the Hunt Library

Though the James B. Hunt Jr. Library is still under construction on North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus, it is already—as promised—giving students pioneering, hands-on experience with technologies that they would not have a chance to work with at any other university in the world. NC State’s Digital Games Research Initiative currently supports one of the top video game design and development programs in North America, based in part on the cutting-edge courses taught in collaboration by the College of Design and the Department of Computer Science.  This semester students have had the opportunity to work with a digital palette the size of which they could only have dreamed of in the past, a prototype of the 21-foot-wide, high-definition video wall that will be the centerpiece of the Hunt Library’s Gaming Lab.

Designed to be nothing less than the best learning and collaborative space in the country, the Hunt Library will place cutting-edge technologies in the hands of students and faculty, enabling and encouraging experimentation, supporting technology-intensive projects, and building community by showcasing research and creative work on campus.  Four huge high-definition Christie® MicroTiles® video walls, including the one in the Gaming Lab, will provide large-scale visualization canvases that will help spur innovative teaching across the curriculum and give students a competitive edge working with and designing for the latest frontier in digital display.

Daniel Kennedy works on NOL on small prototype of Hunt video wall

Professors Scott Townsend and Timothy Buie from the Graphic Design and Industrial Design programs in the College of Design and Dr. Michael Young from the Department of Computer Science have partnered with the NCSU Libraries to enable their advanced graphic design, industrial design, and computer game development students to work together, using a smaller version of Christie MicroTiles walls to be deployed in Hunt Library, to simulate the complex process of creating games in a real-world commercial environment. The combined classes learned to research the needs of a client—in this case, the NCSU Libraries and the vision for the Hunt Library—and orchestrate the work of industrial design and graphic design students with budding game designers and software engineers to complete a project on a tight deadline.  The students scoped, planned, and delivered NOL, a collaborative pursuit game designed to use real-time data delivered from the NCSU Libraries’ catalog to allow a group of players to work together to guard the Vault of Knowledge, the mystical storage site in which the collected wisdom and secrets gained from the innate human capacity for curiosity and thirst for understanding are under attack.

“The width and scope of the Christie MicroTiles wall gave my students hands-on experience with sizing up and seizing an opportunity that will be invaluable as they move forward in their careers,” explains Dr. Young. “Early on, the students realized that the scale of the visual real estate in the Hunt Gaming Lab gave them the room to develop a much more social game than you usually find in the industry today, one where a much larger group could maneuver together at once, controlling the game with Microsoft’s Kinect system.  In fact, they ingeniously figured out how to combine two Kinects into a single system, doubling the number of simultaneous players to four, something we think is a first in the gaming world.  We can’t wait for the Hunt Library to open so we can further bolster our program by using the whole ecosystem of visualization spaces in the building.”

Students put NOL's Kinect interface through its paces

The graphic and industrial design students faced dilemmas with regard to aspect ratios and camera angles that challenged work being done on more conventional screens—and resolved them.  “This is fundamental to the work of a great designer,” explains Professor Buie. “A new technology comes along and the best designers find productive and creative ways to use it—our students have now had an immersive experience earning their wings on a new technology.”  Seeing the game run for the first time on the Christie MicroTiles, one student nicely summed up the experience of the semester: “This is epic.”

“The Hunt Library is a dream environment for Christie MicroTiles, a real test bed that uses our technology as a catalyst in the creative design process,” explains Kevin Barlow, senior director, control rooms for Christie. “This educational facility makes use of our technology most adventurously. We are delighted at the way that the students and their mentors have immediately seen the possibilities and are running with them in NC State’s games program.”

In addition to helping develop the game at the core of the project, Professor Townsend’s graphic design students approached the Hunt Library as an unprecedented library space—one where the robotic bookBot book delivery system minimizes the need for book shelves, where large video walls and other technologies dominate space in a way that patrons have never experienced before, and where digital, virtual, and physical environments merge in unique ways. Using the newest in “designing experiences” in graphic and interaction design and working with complex systems of information, the students developed strategies for how to orient users to the new environment.   Library planners will use the students’ ideas to encourage social interaction and collaborative work across academic disciplines in a space that in many ways redefines what a library can be.  “The experience provided a huge competitive advantage for my students,” argues Professor Townsend. “Anyone can future-cast and blue-sky scenarios for new hypothetical technologies and spaces.  But these NC State students now actually have real-life experience in developing for demanding and complex real-life opportunities. It will be a huge proof point of excellence on a resume.”  Walking into the building for the first time, early in the class, senior design student Mandi Gelselman put it quite simply: “I feel like I’ve been handed the keys to the spaceship.”

“From the beginning, the vision of the Hunt Library was to give students and faculty a technology-immersive environment that would make it easy for them to try out their most innovative ideas,” explains Susan K. Nutter, vice provost and director of the NCSU Libraries.  “We are proud and honored that Professors Buie, Townsend, and Young and their students have been able to produce such great results, even before we have opened the building. What a great job of showing the possibilities of what this iconic new space will be able to do for NC State and for the people of North Carolina!”

North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park is currently the East Coast hub of the video games industry in the United States, home to over 30 startups and large, established studios. The industry supports 1300 highly paid jobs in the area, many of them filled by NC State graduates.

Many of those graduates first gain the attention of these employers at NC State’s annual Game Development Showcase. Held this year on Friday, April 27, from 7:00 – 10:00 p.m. in room 1231 of Engineering Building 2 on NC State’s Centennial Campus, the 2012 showcase will feature the work done for the Hunt Library Gaming Lab.  The game will be available for play, and students will answer questions about its design and development, from the initial concept phase, through the definition of technical and artistic milestones, to the effort involved to create a finished product. The Game Development Showcase is free, and the public is welcome.

The Hunt Library is scheduled to open in January 2013.