While my thoughts are focused on avatars, I’ll take a slight detour before the end of 2011 to explore the topic a little deeper. I promise I’ll tie the topic back to the whole EPS theme before too long.
The concept of avatars and the possible technology ramifications have been a staple of Science Fiction for many years, and certainly avatars as devices of identity have been a part of the computer and video game experience since the late 1970s.
The picture below is a screenshot of the video game Space Wars from 1977. Space Wars was the first vector graphics video game, and the player-controlled spaceships were the first avatar representations produced on computers. (It is important to remember that an avatar is not simply a representation of a person or lifeform that a game player can self-identify as being. An avatar can also be any object or entity that a player can control.) The idea of the game was simple: control your spaceship and destroy the enemy ship while avoiding being sucked into the gravity well of the point singularity in the center of the screen.
Now consider this passage from the Hugo and Nebula award-winning Science Fiction novel Ender’s Game:
“… there was the simulator, the most perfect videogame he had ever played. Teachers and students trained him, step by step in its use. At first, not knowing the awesome power of the game, he had played only at the tactical level, controlling a single-fighter in continuous maneuvers to find and destroy an enemy. The computer-controlled enemy was devious and powerful, and whenever Ender tried a tactic he found the computer using it against him within minutes.”– Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, 1985
Ultimately, it is within the context of what the main character Ender believes to be the game, that he actually destroys the enemy in the real world. It is interesting to see how far technology has taken us… and how far we have to go in order to meet the scenarios created in our imaginations. In fact, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been putting out RFPs asking for simulation systems that function very similarly to the way in which Ender’s training system functioned. Today, game manufacturers are driving hardware to create realistic simulations that create incredibly complex and immersive environments.
At this point in time it is difficult to foresee where all the simulation and avatar technology will lead, but it is obvious that there’s an important role for it to play in education. There are challenges in terms of costs, development resources, and curriculum integration, to be sure. One of the greatest hurdles will be in equipping faculty to implement these technology tools on a classroom-appropriate scale, and empowering faculty with the skills and resources to build useful simulations on their own. There is also a tremendous opportunity for the development of intelligent avatars that could be used as tutors or Personal Digital Teachers individualized for every student, residing on a smart device, and powered by the EPS. Perhaps not by the end of 2012, but that’s something which I am certain will come to pass.