Creating the Immersive Web

May 13, 2013

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.