By Sultan Ali Alharthi, MS ’10
At the peak of its popularity, the mobile game Pokémon Go was crowding places like the Santa Monica Pier with players and turning the outdoors into a massive search area for little monsters.
When the game was released in 2016, I was studying in the United States again, this time in a computer science PhD program at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. I started walking a lot. I noticed both the negative aspects of the game – like having to cross a golf course to find rare pokémons that spawn near water – and the benefits, such as the time spent outdoors and the social interactions.
Besides being fun, games are a great example of systems that can calculate different aspects of human interaction such as teamwork and collaboration. The designers of Pokémon Go probably didn’t anticipate all of its benefits. While competing to collect pocket monsters, some players will engage in social interaction whether that’s encouraged or not.
I think about games not only in my free time, but also in my work as a research assistant and a student of human-computer interaction. In this field, which dates back to the early 1980s, researchers apply insights from psychology, sociology and other disciplines to inform the design of computer systems. Specifically, I investigate the ways people engage in social activities in virtual spaces, such as distributed multiplayer games, online learning environments, and disaster response training. I have been involved in making games and training simulations for search and rescue teams, and I’m particularly interested in mixed and augmented reality games.
Unlike virtual reality games, which fully immerse players so that their immediate surroundings almost disappear, the games that I collaborate on add layers of information and meaning to real places. My colleagues and I want team members to remain aware of their surroundings, and in fact we work to heighten that awareness.
When you think about it, people increasingly are required to be present in more than one space, including the ones created with the help of networked devices. People bring different qualities of awareness to the work (and play) that they do in different physical, digital and mixed spaces. I think my vocation is to walk a mile in the shoes of others, with the goal of designing and refining systems that help them to meet challenges in shared spaces.
To immerse myself in the practices of disaster response, I completed a number of search and rescue training courses and critically reflected on them in the form of autoethnography, so that I understood as much as I could on my own. Then, through my adviser Z O. Toups, I scheduled a visit to Disaster City, a 52-acre training facility in central Texas where rescuers conduct simulations and drills.
There, I conducted fieldwork and interviewed responders and trainers. In addition to the main search and rescue tactics, I focused on understanding how teams make sense of disasters at the beginning of an incident, how they collaboratively plan operations, and how artifacts mediate social interaction.
Since then, my colleagues and I have developed a series of games and wearable systems using head mounted displays – once tying for first place in an international competition sponsored by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory to create next generation tactical communications. Team members used the designed system in a mixed reality live-action role playing game. Our design focused on supporting team situation awareness and decision-making. In one view, the smart glasses show the positions of fellow team members with other information such as their heart rates. In another, they map obstacles and possible threats within the search area.
To be sure, advanced technologies won’t help with every search and rescue operation. The professionals who responded to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico did their jobs without Wi-Fi or even power. Responders still need to revert back to the basics like using a compass and a paper map. Where practical, however, tactical communications systems can be a great benefit for training as well as operations.
Where a specific learning outcome is the objective, games may serve even better than lifelike simulations. On the surface, training games for search and rescue need not have anything to do with locating disaster victims. Teams of players could be tasked with solving a mystery together, finding a treasure, or getting everyone to a waypoint by a specified time. Or they could help one another to collect little monsters.
Like mixed reality games, search and rescue operations can play out over weeks or even months. They can take place in wide spaces or confined ones. It’s fascinating and fun to develop games that support team dynamics and that can be attached to any physical area where people need to interact with one another.
Sultan Ali Alharthi grew up in Saudi Arabia and began designing user interfaces in high school. At Cal Lutheran, he worked on decision support systems under the late professor of computer science Myungsook Klassen. He plans to defend his NMSU dissertation in the summer and begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto late this year. Visit sultanalharthi.com.