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Developing virtual worlds and "serious games"

We talk to Dr Daniela Romano, one of the first female developers of "serious games".

“When I was teenager I saw the film Tron where a hacker is literally abducted into a computer and experiences it as if it was a real world. The main character was a programmer – which is what persuaded me to take up computer science,” she explains. “The other reason is because at the time it was an area with huge prospects – IBM ruled the world and if you were good you were going to make it big.”

By the time Dr Romano graduated she found that employment prospects weren’t as promising as she’d hoped. Nevertheless determined to get a foot in the computer science door she bagged a position with Microsoft. After six years of working in financially rewarding but particularly unchallenging accountancy systems she began to ponder what it was that originally attracted her to computer science.

Developing virtual worlds

“I remembered Tron and the idea of being in a virtual world and decided that I wanted to build virtual environments and use them for educational purposes. I was lucky enough to be awarded a grant from the Computer Based Learning unit at Leeds University – which crosses computer science and education – but then I had to decide what exactly it was I wanted to teach.”

After reviewing several areas Dr Romano settled on creating a training tool for firefighting incident commanders. Challenges like quick decision making can be learnt by reading a manual but a virtual reality environment would allow firefighters to actually experience a ‘real’ situation and react accordingly.
The result was one of the first ever "serious games" which, in the late 90s, garnered Dr Romano much kudos.

“The idea was novel and the amount of programming was enormous given it was all educational and I had to program the whole world. And as a woman it was a big thing then.”

Unusual projects

Dr Romano’s next move was to develop cognitive modeling and graphical innovation. One her more unusual educational projects was Spoken Language Generation for Teaching British Politeness.

“Many people speak English - but it’s one thing to speak it and another to be aware of the nuances of the language. There’s European English, ‘proper’ English and the American English. What I actually studied was British politeness in Yorkshire, which is completely different to the norm. There is also the issue of the way you speak according to the rank of the person you are talking to. Non-verbal behavior is also a factor and very important when realistically animating a character. Everybody knows when you’re happy and sad – but subtler nuances are harder to detect.”

In September 2011 Dr Romano was awarded a new research grant for a “complex adaptive system for prediction and planning in response to extreme event” (CAPIRE). CAPIRE is a simulation system using intelligent software agents to model crowds, traffic and extreme events. The resulting non-linear behaviour of a very complex system can be predicted and explored to
plan response and recovery actions.

New technology makes things more challenging

Interestingly, given the giant technological leaps of the last decade Dr Romano’s job has actually become more challenging. And while graphics have probably reached a creative peak the cognitive and intelligence side of programming still has a long way to go.

“Programming has actually now become more complicated. When you’re pushing the boundaries and making innovations – the work just gets more complicated.

In the old days you did everything yourself – but now I have a colleague who specialises in 3D graphics research for skin and expressions – weaving algorithms so if a character moves his lips the skin automatically knows how to wrinkle. And then on the other side there’s the script. Developing tricks so when the user acts the environment reacts and sequence of the game changes every time – becoming infinite.”

Dr Romano is also exploring general real-time programming straight onto graphics cards.

“If it’s directly on the graphics card it means that you can more easily push the animation and rendering out and create real time reactive games. A bit like The Matrix – except I don’t want to imprison people or anything but I’d like the same graphical flexibilty," she says.

Computer science – calling all women!

Unsurprisingly Dr Romano is keen to encourage more women to take up computer science. Currently at Sheffield University of the 100 doing the undergrad’s course only around ten are women.

“Computer science is very creative and multi-disciplinary (including social science and psychology) and I think women are very capable of handling this kind of diversity,” she says.

“Thankfully new technologies such as the Wii, which generally targets women, have opened up the market. But we also need to project that there are no gender barriers.

“For example, my daughter was the best in her class at maths but used to come home and complain that she couldn’t do it – because she didn’t want to be labeled a ‘nerd’ - until I pointed out that I’m a ‘nerd’ and I’m doing alright! I think the perception of gaming and programming will change - and ‘nerd’ will become the new ‘cool’!

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