Virtual reality solves real life problems
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Behind a monolithic stone hallway in a lab room filled with algorithm-drenched dry erase boards, students and professors of science come together to tackle some of California’s most troubling issues, such as health and the environment.

“We’re dealing with things like California health care, ecology, economy, and using a lot of collaborative science to deal with what’s happening around us,” said Michael Wong, a staff researcher at the lab known as the Center for Computing in Life Science (CCLS).

CCLS is the brainchild of SF State’s computer science department and unites varied experience levels of biologists, chemists, and other scholars from the College of Science and Engineering to conduct research for practical uses.

Wong, an SF alum, worked as a software engineer for Hewlett-Packard before coming back to run the department’s new center. Now using his background in game theory, Wong is helping put together a computer game to help train future nurses and reduce the state’s nursing shortage.

“The biggest problem is that we don’t have the right number of nursing professionals able to teach at the volumes that we need.” Wong said. “One of the ways that we look to get around this problem and the bottleneck is to take the specialized knowledge from the nursing professors and put it into a simulation.”

CCLS generated a multiplayer role-playing game that puts student nurses in a virtual hospital with virtual patients.

“The people in the computer and graphics areas have made it very colorful and very interesting,” said Jane DeLeon, professor at the school of nursing. “It’s safe, the students can practice and learn, yet the patient isn’t in jeopardy, because it’s a game.”

DeLeon, who provided the institutional knowledge for the project, said the California State Board of Nursing allows nursing schools to experiment with alternative types of clinical training. She added that the simulation could be used to teach beginning nursing skills and more advanced courses in pediatrics and surgery.

To make the game, actors from the drama department portrayed ailments and emergencies like heart attacks in front of the kinesiology’s motion-capturing equipment. Wong and his team then wrote the computer coding and made sure the game retained typical gaming industry qualities such as competitiveness. He said he expects the prototype to launch early next semester.

Wong, who has attended educational game conventions, said most of these are designed for the military or k-12 students.

“This is the first game I know of [that is] aimed at a special group of professionals to solve a social problem,” he said.

In 2003, Dragutin Petkovic, the current chair of the computer science department, came up with the idea for the interdisciplinary research center. He then pitched it to the dean of the College and Science and Engineering and applied for funding. According to Wong, unlike other universities, SF State organizes all its science departments under one college.

“Here at state, the opportunity to do collaborative science is unique and one of our advantages,” Wong said.

Senior computer science major Taeli Goh has used the center to conduct his specialized research in computerized object recognition, which operates face-recognition technology in digital cameras.

“This place is amazing in terms of communication,” Goh said. “People are willing to discuss creatively and share their knowledge. Since my field is young, there’s a lot of opportunity I can improve and enhance my creativity of thinking,” he added. “It motivates me.”

CCLS was able to use research similar to Goh’s, to develop software for the biology department to track a species of invasive ants that threatened California’s ecosystem.
These foreign ants, according to Wong, were invading native Californian ant species and negatively affecting the food chain.

By capturing the ants on video, biologists and software engineers were able to trace patterns in their behavior and uncover how the movements related to the ants’ genetic makeup. They then ran the hours of video data through a high-powered computer cluster, which has the power of a lab full of 40 computers in one machine, in order to isolate the ants’ genes and find a relatively safe chemical that would cause them to self-destruct.

“We looked to find a compound that causes invasive species to attack themselves and fall apart,” said Wong.

Without the help of the gene-tracking computer cluster, researchers would have spent endless hours watching tape to analyze the ants’ behavior. Instead, each computer in the cluster independently processed pieces of the data to put together one solution- a procedure known to computer scientists as parallel computation.

Wong did his master’s thesis at SF State on parallel computing and cluster applications and says the system is a fairly inexpensive way to conduct high-level research. Using this applied science, he was able to create a virtual chemistry lab, allowing him to experiment with otherwise highly combustible and expensive compounds.

Wong added that CCLS takes a “dot-com” approach in providing a comfortable place to relax and do research. Many students who come through the lab go into Ph.D programs, or take jobs with companies such as Yahoo!, Sony, and Genentech.

“It’s a great launching point for students,” Wong said. “They further their plans and really make a contribution to science and society in California.”

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