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UCLA computer science class integrates virtual world into reality

Computer science lecturer Diana Ford teaches game-developing as a subfield of graphics. She teaches her fall quarter class, “Advanced Game Development for Virtual Reality,” using Oculus Rift goggles and tracking devices to create immersive gaming codes and player interaction with artificial intelligence. (Kira VandenBrande/Daily Bruin)

By Nate Nickolai

Nov. 18, 2015 7:32 a.m.

The walls of Diana Ford’s classroom dissolve into an open field as she puts on a pair of Oculus Rift goggles.

Within the artificial realm created by the Oculus Rift headset, Ford chases after a ball only to run straight into a surrounding wall in her classroom, blurring virtual reality and reality.

Ford, a lecturer in the computer science department, aims to develop gaming as a subfield of graphics at UCLA through her courses on virtual reality and artificial intelligence. This quarter, Ford’s virtual reality class, “Advanced Game Development for Virtual Reality,” is using gesture-tracking to create its own virtual reality games, following in the footsteps of her spring class, “Virtual Reality Game Development.”

Ford’s spring class produced several pre-patterns in virtual reality programming and presented games at the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, or SIGGRAPH, an annual international graphics conference held by the Association of Computing Machinery in August.

Using Oculus Rift headsets, Ford said her spring virtual reality class used Unreal Engine 4, a collection of game development tools, to produce three-dimensional worlds within which the students created original games with coding.

The games focused on interactions between players and artificial intelligence, Ford said, which students generated using original programming methods in games ranging from aligning planets in space to brawling in an Irish pub.

One game from Ford’s class, “The Last Letter,” uses a searching method that forces the player to interact with the artificial intelligence by programming a vengeful monster to search for players throughout the level.

Within the dimly lit rooms of an abandoned lab, players must navigate tight corners and thin hallways in search of answers, all while avoiding the artificial monster.

Justin Morgan, a graduate student in computer science and one of the creators of “The Last Letter,” said his group struggled with programming the artificial intelligence because it was too good at finding the player. They solved the search skill issue by coding the monster with different probabilities in order to make its search methods more realistic.

“It’s a lot of experimenting,” Morgan said. “You have to get a lot wrong to get a lot right.”

Another game in Ford’s virtual reality class, “How Morning Star Lost Her Fish,” focuses on context-based interactions between players and artificial intelligence, and uses a pop-up menu instead of search programming.

Within the game, a to-do list guides the player through tasks to create run-ins between the player and the artificial intelligence. The player enters the game as a miniature person who must escape the house of a giant human, evading an enormous robotic vacuum roaming the kitchen floor and climbing on different dishes across the countertop.

Keith Corbalis, a computer science alumnus and a creator of “How Morning Star Lost Her Fish,” said one of the harder things about creating the game was translating the code from tests to the actual game. In software, developers can write tests to make sure things work theoretically, but the tests don’t always transfer over well to the game, Corbalis said.

“In game development, you can’t write a test for how good a jump feels,” Corbalis said. “You just need to play and get a feel for how fun it is and how good it feels.”

Ford said the interactions between players and artificial intelligence, built off the programming and testing done by students like Corbalis and Morgan, gave rise to pre-patterns of coding, which can be used by game developers across the world to create even more virtual reality games.

By using pre-patterns, developers can build their games on an already developed base of code. The pre-patterns cut down on coding time and allow game creators to focus on adding even more aspects to virtual reality games, Ford said.

In August, Ford presented pre-patterns within her class’ games on stage at SIGGRAPH. During Ford’s presentation, the student-created games were met with cheering and applause from developers in the audience, she said.

“Every person in the world can use this code to create these (gaming) experiences,” Ford said. “We’ve defined what these generalized pre-patterns are to develop this content.”

As the graphics gaming program continues to grow, Ford said her classes will begin to work with even more immersive technology.

Along with using the Oculus Rift headsets for head-tracking, Ford’s fall class has also been using gesture-tracking to record players’ arm and finger movement so that they can use them inside the virtual reality games without a controller.

Ford said the gesture-tracking gives the current virtual reality class even more opportunity to create innovative games.

In spring 2016, Ford said she hopes to work with full-body tracking, similar to an Xbox’s Kinect, to develop games that allow players to use their entire body to interact with virtual reality features.

“The full-body tracking shoots infrared light and maps the body so then you feel like you are in the virtual space,” Ford said. “This is ultimately where everyone wants to be, so we’re building up to that, and we hope that we are going to get to that soon.”

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Nate Nickolai | A&E editor
Nickolai is the A&E editor. He was previously the assistant A&E editor for the Lifestyle beat and an A&E reporter.
Nickolai is the A&E editor. He was previously the assistant A&E editor for the Lifestyle beat and an A&E reporter.
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