Level Up - Live Lab

Visualization students develop educational video games in an immersive lab experience.

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The cavernous room on the ground floor of the Langford Architecture Center looks like the scene of an all-night gamer fest. Tables are teeming with soda cans, coffee cups and computer screens—two or three for every keyboard and console. Game control devices are heaped in a bin. Posters pay tribute to games like “Super Mario Brothers” and “Star Wars Old Republic.” One wall sign looks like something a teenager would hang on their bedroom door: “Alert: Video Game in Progress.”

But among the bundles of wire and clutter are indications that what happens here is more complex and important than leveling up on the usual Xbox or PS4 games. On a white board in one of the rooms is a diagram of squares and circles titled, “Player Steps.” The key indicates that green circles stand for “teleport,” blue squares are junctions and black squares are activation switches. Another board displays a sketch of Europe under a note, “Geographic Origin.”

This room, known as the Learning Interactive Visualization Experience (LIVE) Lab, represents Texas A&M University’s leap into the digital vanguard. As part of the College of Architecture’s Department of Visualization, the lab employs 26 graduate and undergraduate students who apply skills learned in class to their jobs in the lab: invent games that aren’t just fun to play, but instructive and entertaining as well. Members of the LIVE Lab collaborate with students and faculty in several Texas A&M colleges and departments to research and develop educational experiences for classrooms (kindergarten through college) and for corporations, governments and nonprofits. Students in the lab hail from both the arts and sciences, making it a prime example of STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math). The venture promises to boost the already growing reputation of the Department of Visualization, which offers three areas of specialization—animation and visual effects, graphic design, and game design. The gaming program is ranked eighth among public institutions at the graduate level and 38th among undergraduate programs, and animation companies such as Pixar and DreamWorks are in hot pursuit of the department’s graduates.

Pipeline to the Marketplace

“People have been playing games for thousands of years,” said Andre Thomas, a lecturer in the Department of Visualization who founded the LIVE Lab after coming to Texas A&M in 2014. “Every game teaches the player rules and skills, but our goal in the LIVE Lab is to develop games that educate students and people on subjects they want to master.” Thomas, who had a stellar career at prominent game producers like Electronic Arts, believes so much in the lab and the promise of educational gaming that he invested money from his own company, Bryan-based Triseum, to create an endowment through the Texas A&M Foundation to fund equipment, software and student salaries. “We want to build a model that is self-sustaining,” said Thomas.

Because Triseum commercially distributes educational games developed in the LIVE Lab, “it’s in the interests of the company to have strong products coming out of the lab,” he said. Triseum and the Department of Visualization worked with the university’s Technology Commercialization Program to develop contracts that ensure clear separation between Thomas’ work at Triseum and his leadership of the LIVE Lab.

“Andre brings years of working at the highest level in game design and development,” said Tim McLaughlin, head of the Department of Visualization. “He was like an injection of pure adrenaline into our gaming program. We don’t want to do full commercial production on campus. That’s not what we’re about. Triseum licenses our games and produces them in a way that can be marketed and sold as a product.”

The university benefits because it receives licensing fees for games sold, and Thomas ensures that students are rewarded professionally and financially as well. All student authors receive royalties for the life of the game—a rare, generous arrangement since students are not often considered authors for projects while working at a university. “I treat students as equals,” said Thomas. “I can learn as much from them as they can learn from me. True teamwork establishes the right environment for creativity. It’s really a win-win partnership.”

Art History Immersion

On a desk with stacks of coins and a feather quill, a candle flickers. The Medici family crest hangs on a nearby wall. From this setting in the Palazzo Medici, you, the player, will make decisions about sponsoring art projects in Renaissance Italy. Should you demonstrate your social standing by paying to rebuild the Convent Church of San Marco before another family does? Will you increase your leverage with the church if you commission Donatello to create a sculpture for the All Saints Church?

These are a few scenarios included in the LIVE Lab’s first educational game, “ARTé: Mecenas”, released June 1. The game immerses students in the artistic and political world of 15th-century Florence so they can gain a deep understanding of how politics, economics and the Church influenced art during the Renaissance. “Each game segment targets specific learning objectives, such as social and religious context and style,” said Thomas, “allowing students to truly understand artworks and not simply memorize details about them for exams.”

The game grew out of the department’s desire to deliver a compelling online art history class. “I didn’t want to deliver anything that was simply slide shows or talking heads,” said McLaughlin. “We’re the Department of Visualization—we can do better than that.” Thomas brought together experts from art history and the College of Education and Human Development to help student designers formulate the game. Starting this fall, the game will be incorporated into Texas A&M’s online art history curriculum, while Triseum has begun licensing it to other institutions.

In collaboration with the departments of educational psychology, mathematics and computer science, the lab has also developed a calculus game called Variant with funding from Texas A&M’s Tier One Program, which awards grants to fund new hands-on interdisciplinary education programs. The idea behind the game, which will be released next spring, is to make Calculus 1 more understandable for the 42 percent of undergraduates, according to national averages, who fail, drop or switch out of the course. “This number translates to hundreds of students each semester, a failure rate that poses a serious academic and economic impact on students,” said Thomas.

LIVE Lab students are also developing a game in which players raise money for the United Nations and a simulator for the TEEX firefighting school. “I would love if educators across campus who are faced with challenges on how to communicate topics or teach subjects would approach the LIVE Lab for help in developing a learning game or tool,” said McLaughlin.

“Very few lessons or subjects can’t be done as games,” added Thomas. “The courses I’d like to tackle first are the ones that are most challenging or most boring for students.”

Growing Pains

The LIVE Lab has become so successful in attracting students and contracts for game development that it has outgrown its home. Indeed, the entire Department of Visualization is mushrooming—expanding from 65 students in 2008 to 400 today. To accommodate the growth, McLaughlin ultimately has his eye on a building in downtown Bryan. “We’d love to have flexible studio space for all of our projects,” he said. “We’re looking at a building that could be divided into office space with a warehouse in the back that could act as a stage space for activities like motion capture.”

McLaughlin estimates a $12 million price tag to purchase and renovate the structure. “That may seem high, but the space must include a great deal of high-end and varied equipment in order to be successful,” he said. That equipment includes the computing backbone—the pipeline of software and high-speed networking systems that connect to the outside world. There is a naming opportunity for the building, and also for components such as the LIVE Lab, the 3D Graphics Lab and the Performance Capture Studio. “Downtown Bryan is wonderful because the area is transforming economically,” he said. “It’s a great hub for artists, and a space like this would be a nice bridge with the community. We’re doing well, but we would love to have space that allows us to keep growing.”

From Paper to Pixels

At a table in the center of the lab, Sam Adlis ’16 pulled out the makings of a game that may be added to the LIVE Lab’s “ARTé” game—a plastic sandwich bag containing yellow, orange, green and magenta strips of paper. He explained that each color represents a time period in art history and that the goal of the game is to place various paintings in the correct time period. He demonstrated by sliding different paper strips across the table and, acting as a player, grouping them together correctly.

All games developed in the LIVE Lab begin in this decidedly low-tech way. Adlis is part of the game design team—one of the several groups of specialists who make the LIVE Lab tick. Designers develop and test game concepts via paper prototypes, making changes and notations as they work.

“In these early concepts, we're creating the overall structure of the game so that we can ask ourselves, ‘Will this actually work? What problems will we have?’” said Adlis, a geology major who decided to pursue a graduate degree in game design after taking a class with Thomas. “We create as many prototypes as possible and look at the student learning objectives. We get notes from professors we’re working with. By the end of this development phase, our initial idea may look totally different.”

The concept then makes its way to developers. This team, mainly comprised of computer science majors, codes the game’s digital architecture. “We refine the mechanics,” said Kyle Purser ’17 as he presented a rudimentary animation of the falling bands of color and the player’s ability to sort them as they appear on screen. A computer science major who is minoring in art and game development, Purser has logged about 1,000 hours leading a team of developers on the “ARTé” game. “This is as close as you can get to working at an actual production company,” he added. “We have a strict time schedule, and we have to solve problems in an active way. I’ve gained incredible experience, and I already have my name on a game that has launched commercially. That’s the kind of thing employers want.”

Other teams at the lab bring the digital framework to life. Concept artists produce character and environment sketches to establish the overall look of the game through lighting and color. From there, 3-D teams enhance the fantasy world so that landscapes and layouts feel vibrant and real.

“I’m learning things I would never learn in a classroom,” said Randi Reynolds ’18, a visualization major from Bowie, Texas, who taught herself how to recreate the textures of ceramics, rugs and different types of wood for Variant, the calculus game. “This program is giving me a one-of-a-kind opportunity to push myself in an area I love, and I’m gaining real-world skills that could help me get my dream job.”

The Young and the Generous

The Department of Visualization was founded in 1989 when it became clear that digital art would play a big role in emerging communication technologies. But this newness has a drawback. “We don’t have a history of endowments,” said Tim McLaughlin, head of the department, noting that there are only two endowed scholarships and one endowed professorship in the department.

Fortunately, the department has a group of young alumni working at top animation and gaming studios—Disney, Pixar, Electronic Arts (EA), Lucas Films and DreamWorks—who are enthusiastic, committed and generous. Aggies in these and other companies pool their money every year to provide non-endowed scholarships for deserving students in the Department of Visualization.

“When I graduated, I told myself I would help students at Texas A&M however I could,” said Douglas Bell ’04 ’09, who works for the animated feature film division of Reel FX in Dallas. “At Reel FX, I joined an environment where many Aggies share this enthusiasm.” Former students there created the Reel FX Aggie Scholarship in 2014.

Last year, Gracie Arenas Strittmatter ’04 ’08, a Senior Technical Artist at BioWare, a division of EA, started the Aggie Vizzers at EA Award. She and her husband Willem Strittmatter ’02 also created one of the department’s two endowed scholarships. “A large part of our inspiration came from a passionate commitment to education,” Arenas said. “I also wanted to help foster the fairly new and expanding game curriculum at Texas A&M.” The bonus is that EA, like several other studios, will match donations from former students.

Visualization students can apply for scholarships by sending a portfolio into each company that awards one; then the Aggie employees at that company review the work and pick a favorite. The department makes the final decision, but usually concurs with the group’s recommendations.

This process doubly benefits students: Not only do they earn money for their education, but their work is also seen by top professionals, which can lead to employment. “In the past three years since the scholarship’s inception, one recipient and a few more from our short list of candidates have joined our studio,” said Bell.

McLaughlin is especially appreciative of the contributions from these groups because he knows that many of them are not at a point in their careers where they have extra money for philanthropy. “This is real money for them,” he said. “They’re donating to a scholarship while they’ve got a baby in their arms or are trying to afford a down payment on a house in California. It means a lot that they make this effort.”

Giving Opportunities

Assist with student and facility expansion of the Learning Interactive Visualization Experience (LIVE) Lab.

To support the College of Architecture and learn about endowment opportunities, contact Larry Zuber.

larry zuber

Larry Zuber

Assistant Vice President for Development
Texas A&M Foundation
(800) 392-3310 or (979) 845-0939
lzuber@txamfoundation.com