Island of the Apes

Stephen Luntz speaks to a physicist who has turned his research project into a computer game.

It is hard to tell which is more difficult for most scientists these days - getting funding or ensuring their work reaches a wide audience. Tom Barbalet, an honours student at the Australian National University, has discovered a way to do both. He has turned his research project into a computer game.

The Nation of Nervana: Isle of the Apes is available on CD-ROM. Players are given the role of an ape shipwrecked on the island of Nervana. They have to meet up with their fellow apes, who have been washed ashore elsewhere, and plan a way off the island. Eventually the aim is to build a boat and get off the island before being eaten by predators.

The game is part of a series of project relating to the fictitious island of Nervana. Ecosim is a simulation where it is possible to tamper with the ecology of Nervana in a range of ways and then watch as the computer calculates the effects as they ripple up and down the food chain.

There is a serious message to the project: players experience the realistic effects of destructive behaviour such as logging or over fishing. However it is also plenty of fun. After all you get to play God for a day.

For Mr Barbalet, part of the motivation for the projects was to push and environmental message so that school children could see how destroying one part of a system has unexpected consequences. However, the motivation went deeper. "I felt that the wonder has gone out of a lot of learning, and I hope that Nervana will help put it back."

Virtual reality is not easy to simulate. Difficult algorithms are required to make scenes look realistic as characters move through complicated landscapes and views zoom in or out. Many computer game developers have problems handling this. However, Mr Barbalet's background in physics has helped. "Physics gives you an appreciation for the fact that even a complicated equation has a simple meaning," he noted.

Meanwhile Mr Barbalet indulged one of his other talents by composing music to accompany the game.

Doubting the Australia Research Council would fund a project that crosses so many disciplines, Mr Barbalet took his idea to the Australian Film Commission (AFC) instead. While dubious that he could do the virtual reality modelling required to make the game feel realistic, the AFC provided a loan of $13,000.

Mr Barbalet paid this back through the sale of CDs, mainly through record stores in Canberra. In order to do so he has had to learn about yet another discipline - marketing. One gimmick that has proved successful is taking a stuffed monkey, similar to those on the CD to meetings.

Since then, further parts of the project have been funded from even more surprising sources. Sponsors have seen commercial potential in the mathematics Mr Barbalet is adapting from theoretical physics to use in the game. Consequently they have funded him to develop the CDs in the hope that commercial spin-offs will come. This has allowed Mr Barbalet to give away copies of the game and simulation for free.

Unfortunately for anyone wanting to acquire a piece of Nervana the CDs are out of stock. However a new pressing is planned. Copies of Ecosim are to sent to schools for free in the near future. In the mean time, those wishing to discover more can check www.nervana.com


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