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ROB HOWARD

Immersive Video Games: The Future of Education?

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ROB HOWARD

By Sarah Laskow

Tehran, September 1978. Black Friday. You’re young and reckless, a photographer in the middle of a protest against the shah. Your friend is beckoning you toward the front of the crowd. You try to force your way through a group of people. You want to be at the center of the action. Then the soldiers begin shooting.

Navid Khonsari is developing a video game about the Iranian Revolution, and he needs it to be exciting. You have to watch who you trust and how you talk to people—your family, the woman in charge of the revolutionary headquarters, the storekeepers who sell lemon and cheesecloth to protect your face from teargas.

“The line should be, ‘Oh, I played this sick game, where I was throwing rocks at these soldiers, and then I had to navigate the crowd once the soldiers started shooting,’” Khonsari says. “And then, ‘Oh, and it was about the Iranian Revolution, which was kind of crazy.’ ”

Khonsari knows how crazy games are made. For five years at Rockstar Games, he contributed to blockbuster titles in the Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto series, some of the bestselling games in the world. As a cinematic director—working on storyboards, directing voice actors, and shooting motion-capture scenes—he made games feel more like movies. Now, he has gone indie with his own company, iNK Stories, and his job is closer to a game designer’s—creating a sweeping vision for his new game, Revolution 1979, and finding the right people (and the money) to execute it. He thinks that games can do more than entertain, and he’s not shy about his role in making that happen. “What I’m creating is the template for how future generations are going to be engaging with history,” he says.

Khonsari, now 44, was 10 years old when his family fled Iran. They landed in Canada, where his father once studied medicine and Khonsari and one of his brothers had been born. The family settled in a small city north of Toronto, but Khonsari’s peers weren’t exactly warm and cuddly to the only Iranian they’d ever met. The new kid’s lack of English didn’t help. But pop culture did—Khonsari was fluent in Star Wars, video games, and comics. He grew up on Tintin, loved Marvel’s philosophical Silver Surfer, and later started reading the subversive work of Daniel Clowes as well as Art Spiegelman’s genre-transcending Maus.

Soon enough, he started writing stories of his own—comic books and movie scripts, which led him to film school. Not long after moving to New York City, Khonsari did a test shoot for Grand Theft Auto III, was hired to direct voice-overs for Max Payne, and, for half a decade, had a hand in every blockbuster Rockstar produced. Though he’s worked on games with huge budgets, Khonsari has a soft spot for quirky stories: His first project after Rockstar was Pindemonium, a documentary film released in 2008 about introverted, obsessive collectors of Olympic pins. He met his wife, Bessie, a filmmaker, while working on the movie; she became “co-everything on it.” Their next project together was her documentary film, Pulling John, about competitive arm wrestlers. Today, they live in Brooklyn with their two daughters, and while Khonsari tends to want to do “big, big, big grand things,” he says Bessie (who’s a collaborator on the new game too) “really appreciates the subtlety in the emotional journey of characters and putting that at the forefront.”

With 1979, they’re aiming to hit both notes. To create the game, Khonsari has been researching the revolution history as if he were making a documentary—by interviewing people from his parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Much of his research comes by way of his own family, including cousins who were in college during the revolution and relatives still living in Iran. He’s also enlisting academic and political experts, like the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour. Still a history major at heart, Khonsari says he is interested in moments of sweeping change—not just dates but stories from people’s personal experiences. His own experiences color the game too, and the one that most strongly influences it is his sense that most people don’t understand the real diversity of Iranian political opinions. “Someone like my grandmother, who lived in Iran, prayed three times a day and never ate bacon … she never wanted a theocracy,” he says.

When a player begins the game, he or she will get a quick run-through of the history of the revolution. But Khonsari is also working on building rich historical detail into the world that players will navigate. The main character is a photojournalist, and players can take pictures in the game and compare them with real shots of historical events. If they want to, they’ll be able to walk around an Iranian house, check out what’s on the walls, and turn on the TV and see Iranian TV shows. This exploration isn’t required to get through the game. But it’s there for people who are curious, and Khonsari thinks it could give players a sense of the revolution’s history, much like The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now taught a younger generation about the Vietnam War.

Although making the game educational comes second to making it fun, Khonsari wants players to understand that Iran has a deep history, with independent women and a secular life. “For us to be able to put in different types of stories, that’s the icing on the cake,” Khonsari says.

“It’s a very different animal; it’s very forward thinking,” says Asi Burak, president of the nonprofit Games for Change. “This game starts saying: This is a viable medium to say something smart. That’s not obvious to everyone.” And, Burak says, it makes the job of producing 1979 an uphill battle.

Games like this one often get plenty of good press, but the real challenge is grabbing the attention of actual gamers—and funders. 1979’s Kickstarter campaign didn’t meet its $395,000 goal late last year, but Khonsari says it helped attract potential investors. (And the success of the movie Argo, set during the Iranian hostage crisis, hasn’t hurt: It proves that there’s a mainstream appetite for stories from this era.) He is currently working on developing these leads and asking fans of the Kickstarter campaign to continue to donate through PayPal. “This is meant to be a mass-appeal project,” he says. “I’m still playing games, and I’m in my forties. I love being a gangster; I love taking out aliens. But I started getting fascinated with what would happen if you could engage people within a real experience but make it entertaining—make it a game.” The goal is to release the game’s first installment this summer. When that happens, Khonsari’s own gaming revolution will be alive and well.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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