Serious fun

The relentless technological advances of the video games industry are making waves and fuelling applications across a range of sectors, including defence and medicine. Niall Firth reports.

A greasy adolescent sits cooped up in his fetid bedroom, glazed eyes fixed inches from the screen, planning his next bout of anti-social behaviour. This has long been the image many people conjure up when they think of video gaming. However, as a business now worth more than £500m annually and with a global reach more akin to traditional media such as films and music, the influence that gaming exerts extends well beyond the bedroom of your average spotty youth. It is time for gaming to be taken seriously.

The huge financial rewards that result from the development of hit video games and the rapid concurrent increases in gaming technology have not gone unnoticed. Other industries, as far removed from the archetypal games audience as could be imagined, are finding increasingly clever ways of piggy-backing on the video games sector’s technology breakthroughs.

The first ‘third generation’ of consoles, the Xbox 360, was launched by Microsoft last year and its rivals, Sony’s eagerly anticipated PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii, will be out this autumn. At the heart of the new PlayStation is the Cell microprocessor. Developed jointly by IBM, Sony and Toshiba, Cell is a massive step up in processing power and its design was shaped by the unique demands of the next generation of gaming console.

Raj Desai is vice-president of the Aerospace & Defence division of IBM’s Technology Collaboration Solutions department. This section of the IT giant was set up two years ago specifically to look at technology crossovers from the IT arena into other applications. For Desai the development behind PlayStation 3 has paid dividends.

‘When we collaborated on Cell we knew we required a way of producing significant, unprecedented computing power for games,’ said Desai. ‘We needed almost a super-computer on a chip.’ Gaming, in particular the emergence of broadband online gaming where gamers on opposite sides of the world can play against each other in real time, places significant demands on processing power.

Massive amounts of data must be moved quickly from one place to another and detailed, colourful images built up instantly. So the Cell processor had to be fast. Its acceleration is said to be 10 times quicker than any other chip on the market and its ability to process images at astonishing speeds has meant that it has aroused interest among a number of parties outside the gaming industry.

According to Desai, it is the desire to bring ever-increasing levels of realism to video games that have driven the technical development of Cell. The massive amounts of R&D that have gone into the super-chip — around $400m (£220m) — are indicative of the way in which the commercial gaming industry is driving technology development. ‘Twenty years ago processing capability was driven by the defence industry,’ said Desai. ‘Then it was the PC and home computing. In the past two to three years it has been gaming that has driven processing technology, and it is moving faster than ever before,’ he said.

US computer systems company Mercury was the first client to collaborate on including Cell for non-gaming applications, and is using the chip in a number of medical applications where its unique processing power can be exploited. According to Mercury’s chief technology officer Craig Lund, gaming technology is ideal for use in a number of disparate technologies that operate well beyond the confines of the average adolescent’s bedroom.

‘We focus on embedded problems,’ said Lund. ‘All the markets we operate in use a type of sensor, whether it’s radar, camera or other exotic gadgets, that produces a real-time stream of data. This needs to be mathematically processed and stored until a human can look at a graphical representation. High-end video games follow the same process so there’s an obvious crossover.’

Cell’s unique processing speed allows number-crunching on an entirely new scale. Complex algorithms that cannot be processed using conventional computing power can now be employed to analyse data quickly and in greater depth. Mercury works in a number of different markets including the development of tools to be used in the inspection of semiconductors. However, the market that has most quickly adapted to integrating Cell into its systems is the oil and gas industry.

Before any drilling commences oil and gas companies use sensors to analyse the suitability of an area of land for commercial use. To view what lies beneath the surface, the earth is pounded to create sonic waves which are then analysed. The data from this seismic sensing is used to build up a large-scale graphical representation which is displayed in colourful 3D on wall-sized screens. ‘Super-computers can do the same thing, but they are far too big and expensive,’ said Lund.

Although it is taking longer to integrate the technology, Mercury also plans to use Cell in a range of medical applications. For medical imaging huge amounts of data are collected and then an image has to be constructed using that information. For this reason Desai believes that the chip’s processing power could make procedures such as mammography or CAT scans more detailed and provide far more information for doctors. ‘Eventually we could envisage that real-time image processing with Cell could be used even during an operation and could show a surgeon exactly where he is cutting,’ he said.

Other applications for Cell extend far beyond hospital walls, taking this small chip that was originally designed to allow realistic gaming into a far more serious arena. As the world’s defence agencies move ever closer to their vision of a more sophisticated, network-centric vision for their nation’s military, the demands on processing power have increased dramatically.

According to Desai, Cell’s ability to receive large amounts of data and then quickly construct an image means that detecting the capability of defence applications such as radar could be greatly enhanced. The small size of the chip relevant to its processing power also means that it could be used in sophisticated radar equipment in aeroplanes that was too big and bulky to be airborne in the past.

In the US defence giant Northrop Grumman is looking at how it can exploit the gaming technology boom in any way possible. Scott Shaffar, project manager for video gaming at the company’s Integrated Systems sector, agreed that the defence industry is a slow, lumbering beast when compared to the quick-fire development occurring in the games world.

‘Video games are the fastest-growing technology area at the moment. The technology comes through and then we look at how we can apply it,’ said Shaffar. ‘One of the challenges for companies like Northrop to apply gaming technologies is to break past the preconceived notions that they are purely for entertainment. It is moving so quickly it’s hard for the defence industry to keep up.’

Northrop is looking to integrate gaming technologies into its networked battlefield simulators, to which end it has been collaborating with BAE Systems, while on the hardware side it has been developing game controllers that can be used to operate cameras on UAVs.

For Shaffar a real area of future promise for the integration of gaming into defence applications is the continued evolution and growth of so-called MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). These online universes allow players to assume characters and explore seemingly limitless environments, as well as form allegiances, do battle and more. He believes that when it is possible to host far more players on secure servers the technology could form a crucial part of the military’s network-centric warfare capability.

In the UK, the MoD is taking a keen interest in gaming technology of a different type. As part of a four-year project for the MoD, Qinetiq is looking at ways commercial gaming technology can be exploited for military use. The work is based on the highly popular and critically acclaimed video game Half-Life, a ‘first person shooter’ that was hailed as a revolution in the genre when it was released in 1998.

Just as the US Army is employing the game Full Spectrum Warrior to train troops, Qinetiq is adopting Half-Life’s game engine as a basis for a highly realistic and immersive training platform and has deployed prototypes of the system with seven army units across the UK. Known as Dismounted Infantry Virtual Environment (DIVE), the system is designed to train small, four-man teams to work in an urban environment, including clearing buildings and engaging enemy soldiers in realistic urban situations.

Stuart Armstrong is war fighting experiments team leader and is working as part of Qinetiq’s Capability Support Division to integrate gaming technology into the MoD’s training programme. ‘As a research programme it has been a phenomenal success as the realism and immersion of the new games are so good,’ said Armstrong. ‘Military simulations take a while to evolve as they are very expensive and hugely complicated. People are now starting to realise that commercial games technologies can do things much better as the technology in that area is moving so quickly.’

Qinetiq adapted the video game by removing many of the gaming elements such as unrealistic running and jumping capabilities and the usual health packs that gaming characters use to replenish themselves. Realistic parameters such as correct uniforms, weapons and magazine sizes were added and, crucially, soldiers in DIVE are a lot less resilient to being shot than the original Half-Life character.

In a technique known as re-skinning the maps in the game were reconfigured so they matched those of Copehill Down, the Army’s ‘ghost’ village on Salisbury Plain which was purpose-built to practise urban warfare techniques. For Armstrong the use of high-resolution gaming technology adds an extra dimension to Army training exercises, one that just a few years ago would not have been possible. His team has looked at using surround sound with immersive gaming as part of its training programme and is reviewing games technologies to see how they can be used across all three UK services.

Armstrong said that one of the key benefits to using the game engines from commercial gaming software is that the games companies make the games engines easy to modify for players. So it is simple for engineers at Qinetiq to quickly add in new weapons and new maps and would mean that a training game could be quickly modified to replicate any upcoming real-life conflict at very short notice.

However, on the hardware side things are moving more slowly, according to Armstrong. Despite the gaming technologies that are available he believes the defence industry is rather slow on the uptake. ‘They haven’t cottoned on to where gaming technology is going, such as utilising all the new peripherals like VR glasses and gaming add-ons,’ he said. ‘They are not there in terms of integration yet but I think in a few years there will be convergence.’

For example, Sony’s newest gadget, the handheld PlayStation Portable (PSP), has impressed Armstrong in its ability to enable wireless networking play high-quality images and sound at such a cheap price. ‘It is a phenomenal piece of hardware compared to the some of the dismounted systems that the Army uses with similar capabilities that can cost 10 times as much. I believe there is definitely room for some transfer in hardware in the future.’

Technology transfer from the gaming industry goes beyond hardware and gaming engine crossovers, however. The very fabric of what makes a game possible — the software development — is proving to be immensely beneficial for other industries. As the leading computer games technology university in the UK, Abertay University in Scotland runs a number of courses led by software engineer Prof Lachlan McKinnon. While he agrees with Shaffar that the future of online role-playing games will have a knock-on effect outside gaming, he sees the very skills required to develop a sophisticated video game as being eminently transferable across a broad range of industries. ‘Gaming has the potential to be a ubiquitous technology, as in any sort of game you have a constraint system governed by rules that controls objects in a defined environment,’ said McKinnon.

In the past McKinnon worked with Motorola on an EU project to develop training simulators to help staff learn about operating in ‘clean rooms’ in the semiconductor industry. He envisages a time in the not too distant future when engineers will be able to enter a scenario and access a game-based resource bank coupled with virtual-reality eyewear to analyse a situation quickly and effectively.

In the shorter term an exciting application of games technology lies in its integration into smart systems, according to McKinnon. Abertay University has just launched a new set of degrees in smart systems which McKinnon sees as the ‘next generation of engineering’. ‘We’re looking at integrating mechatronics, sensors, advertising, electronics and health sensing in people’s homes — really the whole gamut of applications. Gaming technology gives you a smart network that can be run as a constraint-based game using rule-based scenarios, characterisation and the ability to simulate and visualise situations.’

Working with an embedded systems company in Norway, McKinnon is also taking games technology as a starting point in the development of easy-to-use interfaces for smart homes to make them more intuitive. ‘Power companies sell volts and amps, but customers buy power and water and so you need to have an easy interface,’ said McKinnon. ‘I believe we are at the convergence of what we consider to be traditional computing and engineering with games technology and next-generation tools.’

He added: ‘Looking at the millions of gates on all the chips in a smart home it appears an incredibly complicated system design. But if you model it as a game the rules are a lot more straightforward — it begins to look more like the video game SimCity and anyone can play that.’