Wrapping your mind around a more playful world of learning

Published:07 November 2016

Dr Michael Cowling with some superimposed symbols relating to space colonisation.

Some people just see the world differently.

Dr Michael Cowling is certainly one of them. He’s determined to leave no technological stone unturned to find better ways of teaching and learning.  

The CQUniversity researcher has returned from six months in the USA, working at the cutting-edge of augmented reality and 3D printing with Josh and Karen Tanenbaum, from the Transformative Play Lab at University of California Irvine.

He’s now an advocate of ‘playful fabrication’ - the use of game-play to drive innovation design and engineering.  For example, he and his American contacts have been devising a prototype game where 3D printed objects are recognised using augmented reality in a space colony simulation game.

“Our game design jam spawned the concept for a game that could 3D-print a colony for settlers on another planet, piece by piece.  

“Markers are incorporated into each 3D-printed model for recognition by an overlayed augmented reality system, viewable through a tablet computer to enable players to get more detailed information about the colony’s status as it grows.  

“In a playful application of a personal fabrication system, the act of using the machine should be part of the enjoyable and engaging experience,” Dr Cowling says.  

“Good games can drive consumer demand for the platforms and devices that play them, and can open up new markets for home-fabrication systems.  

“Games demand higher performance and reliability and also drive interface innovation.”  

The new game dubbed ‘Terraform’ has allowed the designers to dip their toe into exciting new possibilities for hybrid physical/digital gameplay.  

Dr Cowling says the slow emergence of game play objects from under the 3D printer’s nozzle can create opportunities for surprise and discovery as players watch an unknown model take shape.  

“The 3D printers provide exciting opportunities to incorporate the physical world into playful and educational interactive systems,” he says.  

Dr Cowling said the prototype experience has already opened up new horizons for technology, including ‘plate awareness’ for the 3D printer build plate and a two-way flow of information between the game computer and the 3D printer.  

Future designs could include a robot arm able to push pieces off the build plate or even a system enabling recycling of the completed game pieces as feedstock for the next 3D print.  

Dr Cowling has spent the past few years exploring ways to adapt augmented reality for education, including specific projects with the Mixed Reality Research Lab and Dr James Birt from Bond University.

For example, he’s been piloting the use of physical models to represent computer networking equipment and then overlaying a simulation, viewable through a screen, to observe how data travels from the source to the destination.  

There’s also been a success in the use of 3D printed medical gear and a mobile phone app showing a throat blockage to enable paramedic students to practice their laryngoscopy techniques.