Designing "Playcology": A Mixed-Reality Science Game

Designing "Playcology": A Mixed-Reality Science Game
Photo by Erik Mclean / Unsplash

A mixed-reality environment is one in which the physical world is overlaid or mixed with digital content, such that physical and digital objects can interact. For instance, camera-projector systems can overlay digital content onto a tabletop, and update the projected images as objects on the table are moved around. This degree of interactivity between the digital and physical is quite powerful– for instance, it allows Dynamicland to turn ordinary objects and pieces of paper into a dynamic computational medium.

Mixed-reality systems stand to bring the power of computing for simulation, interactivity and information visualization into a collaborative, engaging learning environment. But despite their potential for rich, immersive science learning, mixed-reality systems still haven't made their way into science classrooms.

I wanted to imagine a future for science learning where kids can work, learn and play together in spaces that are "infused" with science.

The Playcology game

To explore the integration of science content with familiar, everyday objects, I designed a mixed-reality game that augments a deck of playing cards. Players see an augmented environment– an interactive simulation of predator-prey and ecological dynamics, that they could interact with by playing particular cards.

How it works: Players are dealt a hand of playing cards, each representing a potential action within the game (and marked by a unique fiducial marker). A nearby computer processes the feed from an overhead camera to locate and recognize the cards being played. The computer generates the simulation, updates its state based on the cards being played, and projects the simulation onto the tabletop between the players.

Using a "bug spray" card to selectively kill some augmented bugs.

1) Bug cards add new types of bugs into the ecosystem. There are predator and prey bugs. Bugs do a variation on a "random walk" to crawl around the space. When they bump into each other, the predator eats the prey; if two of the same type of bugs run into each other, they can reproduce.

Bug, spray and graph cards.

2) Spray cards allow the player to selectively remove bugs. They move the card around the play area, and the computer tracks this motion and removes nearby "sprayed" bugs.

3) Graph cards show the player a representation of the population sizes of different organisms in the game, and how they've changed over time.

Over time, the players can observe predator-prey dynamics. Players can investigate these dynamics using the cards available-- for example, by working together to try to achieve a population equilibrium. Players could also compete, 'betting' on and playing to ensure the success of a particular population.

Mixed-reality systems let us integrate familiar gameplay mechanics with dynamic science content. If you're interested in mixed-reality, immersive learning environment design, let's get in touch!