Tech Sandbox
July 3, 2014

Tech Sandbox, Unicorb And The Thalia

To me it does not feel all that long ago that the Nintendo Wii came out, soon to be followed by the Microsoft X-Box Kinect and the Sony PlayStation Move. Motion controls were said to herald a new age of gaming, one that would be much more interactive, diminishing the barrier between player and avatar. Has it? No, not really. If anything, these attempts at motion control have — at least to me — furthered the divide between myself and the game. This is not to say that motion controls and other forms of more interactive control will not someday be all that it has promised. It just is not there yet. There are a lot of hurdles they need to overcome before they will truly reinvent how we play video games. Meanwhile, the development of motion controlled gaming has had the unfortunate side effect of being seen as little more than a gimmick by many “hardcore” gamers and has left a lot of players wondering what the industry will try next. How about a game that you control by smiling?

No, I was not being sarcastic. I was talking about Unicorb, a game in which players wear an interactive system called the Thalia that can measure facial muscles so that they can help keep a flying unicorn aloft as it jumps through rainbows.

Yeah… Not a lot I can think to say on that one.

Unicorb and the Thalia were created by James Wu, Karl Marrett, Tyler Maxfield, and Tiffany Youngquist, all students at the University of Washington. Wu is a graduate student in bioengineering, Marrett is a graduate student with a research background in neurology, Maxfield is a bioengineering undergraduate, and Youngquist is a bioengineering graduate student. These four students all came together to create the Unicorb and the Thalia for the 2014 Tech Sandbox competition, held at the end of a course of the same name, that was offered by the University.

So what is the Tech Sandbox? According to Lise Johnson, the instructor of Tech Sandbox and the education manager of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), an Engineering Research Center funded by the National Science Foundation and based at the University of Washington, “Students are supposed to create projects that demonstrate the core principles of neural engineering, and they should also be things that can work as educational demos. We want them to be fun and interesting and maybe marketable, commercializable.”

The Tech Sandbox competition was first offered in 2013 to students as an extracurricular activity. In 2014 this was changed as it was offered instead as a course with the competition taking place at the end of said course. Students, graduates and undergraduates alike, enroll in the program as teams, working together throughout the the quarter. Then, at the end of the course, they put everything they have together to take part in the now annual competition. There are no required prerequisites for signing up for the Tech Sandbox course, though it has mostly attracted bioengineering students along with a few others from different disciplines.

Johnson explains it as, “It’s kind of a work in progress. There are no lectures and there is no curriculum. One of the good things about offering it as a course is that there’s some sort of incentive for people to do a good job.”

The winning project of the 2013 Tech Sandbox was a game called WrestleBrainia 3000, a game in which EMG (electromyogram) signals from the arms of two players are used to control arm-wrestling robots. This year there were five competing teams and the winner was the “vHAB,” a virtual reality game that was designed to help stroke patients regain the lost motor control of their hands. Using very sensitive controls that are able to respond to even the smallest motions made by the users, the vHAB can track a patient’s progress and provides them with motivational feedback on how they are doing throughout their recovery.

Currently, Tech Sandbox is working to expand its model to partner institutions including MIT, Morehouse College, and San Diego State University as they try to evaluate its potential scalability, especially for those institutions that may be more limited by finite resources or a lower number of grad students. These efforts are being made in order to improve the adaptability of the Tech Sandbox, making it more likely to be able to encourage students from the more underrepresented groups to participate in this wonderful exercise in science and engineering.

Image Credit: Tiffany M. Youngquist, Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, University of Washington

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