It sort of sounds like the start to a bad joke: a neuroscientist, a programmer and an artist walk into the Baltimore aquarium.
But that's exactly the team that came together for "I Am Dolphin," a new game created by Johns Hopkins neuroscience professor John Krakauer and a small team of programmers and artists. The team worked to create a game that not only rethinks animation in games, but also has the potential to teach us more about how our own brains work.
"I'm interested in movement, in motor control science -- and in the aesthetics of it," Krakauer said. In the past, he's looked into why people find so much pleasure in watching the way soccer players or professional dancers move. Part of it, he said, is that spectators empathize with the way that those graceful, agile athletes move, and that stirs something deep in their own minds. And he wanted to make a simulation game that evoked those same desires.
Right now, "I Am Dolphin" is just a game, albeit a pretty entertaining one. But down the line, Krakauer also thinks that it could have applications in therapy, particularly for stroke victims. There's been a lot of chatter about how games can be used in therapy over the past several years. Some have used game simulation technology to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder; others have explored how to use accessories such as the Microsoft Kinect for physical therapy. Krakauer and his team have built new technology from scratch to explore the joy of movement, and tap into their neuroscience expertise to make the on-screen characters -- dolphins, in this case -- more empathetic.
"I wanted to make something for children that's non-violent, and perhaps for patients, that can tap into this movement pleasure," he said.
So, on the face of it, "I Am Dolphin" seems like just another kids' app. You control an on-screen dolphin -- the starter dolphin is named Bandit -- and chase after fish that you want to eat. Sometimes the fish fight back. Sometimes you face sharks. Sometimes you get to leap out of the water. But just a few minutes into playing the game, you start to sense that there's something really different about the way you're moving. The movement is fluid, responsive and definitely not cobbled out of a bank of animations.
Rather than rely on existing game engines and preset animations, the team decided to build something from the ground up -- a daunting feat, said Promit Roy, one of the software architects on the project. Roy, who has worked at Microsoft and Nvidia said that there just wasn't an engine out there that could do what the team wanted.
Systems, such as Unity or Unreal, "are built for what's already out there, and they recreate that," he said. This team started from a clean slate. To get the modeling for how dolphins move just right, the team went to the National Aquarium in Baltimore to consult the dolphin trainers and spend hours in observation. Kat McNally, who did the art for the game, said that their observations surprised even seasoned dolphin trainers, who pointed out "inaccuracies" in the dolphin's in-game movement, only to come back later and say they'd seen their dolphins do exactly that in real life.
Down the line, the team said, they'd like to apply the technology they developed to other games, as well as other types of research. One idea, Krakauer said, would be to put a life-sized version of "I Am Dolphin" next to a dolphin tank to and see what it can tell us about animal cognition.
"Maybe we'll get one dolphin to play with another," he said