The Geeks' Guide to Gaming: A look inside the SMALLab system

Dave Faulkner returns with a second guest post reporting on his presentation at Sandbox Summit 2013 about his work building SMALLab learning experiences.

As a graduate student the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center, each semester I have the opportunity to work on a new and innovative project.  In the fall semester of 2012 I worked with a group of five other CMU ETC students to build educational experiences for the SMALLab system that had recently been installed at the Elizabeth Forward Middle School.  We called ourselves team BrainSTEM.  BrainSTEM teammate Anisha Deshmane, CMU ETC Director Drew Davidson, and myself were asked to come to the Sandbox Summit to present our SMALLab work and to come up with a workshop for the conference.

The SMALLab system bridges the digital and physical worlds in an interesting way.  The SMALLab system itself consists of an overhead projector that throws a virtual world (a game space) onto the floor of a room.  There is a ring of twelve motion capture cameras that outline the room.  The students interact with the system using specially designed wands that have infrared reflective balls that are picked up by the motion capture cameras.  A standard desktop computer crunches the numbers and special software figures out where each wand is in actual 3D space.  The system can pick up not only where each wand is on the x, y, and z axis of the room, but also what the tilt and rotation of each wand is.  The floor in the SMALLab is covered by a white mat and students take off their shoes when they enter the room.  The mat is there for two reasons; the first is to protect the students from the floor should someone trip or get knocked over, and the second is to give the projector a white surface to project onto.  The video above shows students interacting with the system

There are a number of unique things about the SMALLab.  The first is that it allows for kinesthetic learning.  While participating in a SMALLab experience the students are physically engaging with the material to be learned.  Besides being a ton of fun, there is research that shows that kinesthetic learning improves recall of the material to be learned.  The SMALLab is multimodal, which means that the information is coming to the students through multiple channels.  There is the visual channel of the virtual world on the floor, and there is the auditory channel of the sounds coming out of the speakers.  But one of the most important channels is the social channel, the interactions the students are having with one another.  All of this together is called embodied learning.

Designing for the SMALLab poses some interesting design challenges.  For example, while in the SMALLab the roll of the teacher changes from sage-on-the-stage to more of a facilitator / enabler.  Because of the nature of the system the teacher is less of a focus than they usually are in the classroom.  This isn’t to say that the SMALLab replaces the teacher or takes on the responsibility of instructing the students.  The SMALLab is a tool and a skilled teacher is still needed to make it effective at instructing students.  When designing games for the system you have to consider how the teacher is going to utilize the system and what the main interactions are.  Another major consideration is what all of the students that are not holding a wand will be doing.  Between one and three students will be using a wand at a time, so most often most of the students will not be actually manipulating the system.  You have to come up with ways to include everyone in the experience.

The goal of our workshop was to take the attendees through the design process we used when designing our SMALLab experiences.  After a short presentation and Q&A session (link to the PowerPoint here) we broke the attendees up into five groups of four people.  Each group was tasked with coming up with an educational experience utilizing the SMALL system and by the end of the workshop they were to have a simple game design document outlining their game.  We supplied the attendees with a handout (link to handout) that had number of learning objectives that they could choose from and also gave them the option of coming up with their own set of learning objectives.  The handout explains four different advocate roles and the attendees were asked to play them while brainstorming.  The four advocate roles were that of the teacher, that of the non-wand holding students, that of the learning objectives, and that of fun.

We had originally planned on having the teams post their designs on the wall and then walk around and have a poster-style discussion about each design.  We had a bit of a late start and so instead had each team posted their design on the board and gave a short pitch.  The teams presented their learning objectives, the main interactions, what the non-wand holding students would be doing at each step, and what the teacher would be doing during the experience.  We went over time by almost 15 minutes but everyone stuck around to hear about all of the designs.

All the groups had interesting and unique idea of how to achieve their learning goals.  One group decided to teach about mixing color.  An outlined image would appear in the center of the mat.  The students would pick up buckets and fill them with a primary color, then pour and mix the color on a paint mixing board.  Once the paint was mixed the student would grab a paintbrush and paint in a picture in the center of the mat.  Another team’s idea was to teach earth science by having the students play as Greek gods to affect the environment.  They would be able to toss thunderbolts as Zeus or control the water as Poseidon, all the while being supervised by their teacher who would control the experience as Athena.  How cool is that!

The workshop attendees seemed to enjoy the design exercise   I was surprised at the level of engagement at 8 am on a Tuesday morning after a very full Monday.  All of the ideas that the teams came up with were fund and original.  A few of the teams were scrambling to get their game design documents finished in time to show them to the rest of the group, but everyone got it done and the pitches were fantastic.

I had a blast presenting our work and facilitating the workshop.  I’m thankful to all of the attendees and to the Sandbox folks for having us.  I look forward Sandbox Summit 2014!

Published April 26, 2013