A Whole New Game

They’re the unsung heroes of the modern-day video game. The team at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering’s Integrated Media Systems Center in Los Angeles doesn’t develop the games or the consoles on which the amusements are played. But they do play an integral role in creating the technology behind popular games like Grand Theft Auto and Madden NFL.

The center’s 50 faculty and staff members work closely with more than 200 students to “conduct research and invent tools,” according to Adam Clayton Powell III, director at IMSC–the only National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center devoted to multimedia research. The center’s most recent accomplishment is an immersive 3-D format that will be compatible with the next generation of PlayStation and Xbox game consoles by 2007.

“We’re the ones who conduct research and invent the tools that game designers use to make games more realistic,” says Powell, 59, who is also a research professor at the USC School of Engineering, as well as senior fellow at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and its 3-D Center on Public Diplomacy. He describes the format as one that creates the psychological effect of “being there” rather than sitting in front of a screen pushing buttons on a controller. IMSC’s research contributes a level of realism to video, audio, sense of touch, and human performance engineering.

IMSC works closely with educators to develop educational games that help students in grades K—12 learn more effectively. “We do have evidence that game-based education is at least competitive with paper-based education for fields we have tested.” Powell says. “And we have strong evidence that game-based tools are yielding significantly superior results especially in difficult areas of science and math.” The technology helps students visualize and understand difficult concepts that otherwise are elusive when reduced to two-dimensional papers or blackboards.

A longtime champion of new media, Powell, son of the late civil rights activist and U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., helped start and run Internet and technology programs for the Freedom Forum for 16 years. He came on board as IMSC’s director in January 2005, having served on USC’s faculty for two years. Previously, Powell was general manager of WHUT-TV, the nation’s first African American-owned public television station, at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

By combining media experience with a passion for technology, Powell caught the attention of C. L. Max Nikias, provost of USC, former dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and IMSC’s founding director. “Adam grasped the potential of the new digital communications technologies, and he had Very creative ideas on how to use them,” recalls Nikias. “He was there every step of the way as IMSC first laid out its ambitious vision to make the Internet a powerful, immersive experience for users and then began making those technologies a reality.”

One result of those efforts is a partnership with Washington D.C.’s McKinley Technology High School, which caters primarily to African American students. Through the pilot project, IMSC provides interactive science education tools like BioSIGHT, a