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GMU Student's 'Pong' Makeover Is, Like, Wild

Stephen Taylor, 21, started writing code for
Stephen Taylor, 21, started writing code for "Plasma Pong" on winter break. After he posted it online, it was downloaded 50,000 times and removed from GMU's server. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

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By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It takes some serious math to make something this trippy. To create a video game that's sort of like playing Ping-Pong while floating in melted lollipops, George Mason University student Stephen Taylor spent more than a year wrestling through algorithms, fluid dynamics and computer coding.

Taylor created a version of "Pong," one of the earliest and most iconic video games, a dead-simple screen with a ball blipping between two paddles -- and made it psychedelic. Creepy electronica music rises to a crescendo as colors swirl around the liquid current. (Are those monks chanting, or tortured souls?)

It's over the top, freaky, high-speed and mellow all at once.

As his online fans would say: DUDE. This is AWESOME.

Taylor, 21, started writing code for "Plasma Pong" when he was bored on winter break at his parents' house. Now the game has taken off.

When he posted it online, it slowed the whole GMU server to a crawl. An administrator traced the problem to the game, which had been downloaded 50,000 times, and ordered him to take it down.

"That was pretty cool," Taylor said, grinning.

The new Web site has had almost a million visits.

"Plasma Pong" was named one of the top five indie games by the influential tech site Wired.com.

And in a sign of the growing respect for video gaming from the academic world, it's not just hard-core players who are impressed.

"It's extraordinary," said Zoran Duric, a professor of computer sciences at GMU. "He's taken some of the stuff he's learned at school, combined it with imagination and talents. That is tremendous."

In the past few years, universities have been giving video games -- once dismissed as vapid and some still criticized for glorifying violence -- more respect. Why? There's the clout of the $30 billion gaming industry -- with lots of development percolating at Washington-area companies. It's a way to lure all those Xbox kids to campus. And as the capabilities increase, gaming technology is being used for everything from military training to brain exercises to virtual surgery for medical students.

For example: The University of Maryland's business school hosted a supply-chain game in which teams of students from around the world competed as electronics distributors -- calculating risk, taking orders, finding suppliers -- all in real time.

The innovations that will drive technology are more and more likely to come from universities and students, said Dean Chang, the new director of MTECH Ventures, U-Md.'s technology entrepreneurship program.

MIT offers research in video game technology. Carnegie Mellon University has an Entertainment Technology Center. Students can study the technology at Montgomery College and then transfer directly to the University of Baltimore for a four-year degree. U-Md. has senior-level courses in game design. And George Mason is developing a gaming track for computer science majors and is considering offering a master's degree.

In and out of class, Taylor worked through the thorny calculations to create "Plasma Pong." "Usually when people think of [simulating] fluids they think, 'Very expensive, huge problem,' " said Jos Stam, a scientist well known in the industry, who wrote a research paper that Taylor found and used to develop the game. That's because so many variables affect the way liquid, or smoke or fire, diffuses through space.

Stam presented a breakthrough, an easier way to do it. Still, the paper is a lot of this kind of thing: "For large diffusion rates, the density values start to oscillate, become negative, and finally diverge, making the simulation useless." And, "we can interpret the velocity equation as saying that the velocity over a time step changes due to three causes: the addition of forces, viscous diffusion and self-advection."

Right.

Here's how it works: Players compete against the game or an opponent, with basic rules similar to those for table tennis. A mouse click sends a jet of liquid or creates a suction effect. The colors keep changing, pulsating around the screen, with particles flying around, too. "I wanted really whacked-out visuals," Taylor said.

The game includes a sandbox function for people to mess around with. "You can toggle all the controls, turn it into a giant bowl of Jell-O if you want to," Taylor said, increasing the thickness of the liquid, the buoyancy or the spin. "Just like playing in a sandbox."

"Pong" has been reinvented before, with updated technology and peoples' own zany touches (including a version that featured Bill Clinton's head as the ball, and a demo using body sensors to control the paddles). Simulating fluid dynamics took mathematical calculations of viscosity, gravity, vorticity and other forces that affect the movement of liquid.

Anyway, now that he's got that nailed, Taylor's launching a company. He's getting music licensed for the game and thinking about a new name to avoid echoing the "Pong" trademark. He's talking with lawyers. He's looking for investors. And he's finishing his last year of college.

At his parents' home in Fairfax Station, he has been working on the game, hacking through how to make it multi-player so that a student at GMU could play someone in, say, Tokyo, in real time.

On his laptop, he clicked on an image of red juice sloshing around in a glass box -- three-dimensional, rather than the two-dimensional slice of liquid he's got. "To have something like this would be absolutely amazing," he said, staring at it, the lava lamp on his desk bubbling away. "It's very, very difficult."


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