What is a White House Game Jam?

September 20th, 2014

Recently, September 5-8, 2014, I participated in the first White House Game Jam. A game jam is a gathering of game developers with the purpose of developing a game within a short time, like 24 – 48 hours. The White House Game Jam was sponsored by the White House.

White House

The White House

Yes. That White House.

So this adventure started about two weeks before I flew out to Washington, DC. On August 20, 2014 I got an email from a manager within Pearson asking if I was interested in participating in the White House Game Jam. Kristen DiCerbo, who works at Pearson researching how data generated while students play games can be used to assess their learning, Chris Crowell, from Crowell Interactive game development, and Cole Cecil, a fellow software developer at Pearson with me, composed our team.

Team Pearbat

Team Pearbat

On September 1, 2014, Mark DeLoura, Senior Advisor for Digital Media, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and game jam facilitator, sent us the rules for the jam. It included suggested topics for our game: science, civics, math, English, or history. Our team, consisting of members in Iowa City, IA, Phoenix, AX, and Toronto, Canada, met via a Google Hangout to discuss strategy. After our brainstorming session we decided that we would create a game related to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The idea of the game is that you are an investigator moments after the assassination and your job is to investigate and interview potential suspects who may have been involved in the assassination. Through the evidence gathered during the investigation the player would determine if the evidence is important, truthful, and points to guilt or innocence for the particular suspect. As the user plays the game they may change their assessment of the evidence and this can be used to analyse the critical thinking of the player.

Chris’s role in the team was as the game designer and graphic artist. Kristen acted as producer and researcher. Cole and myself were the developers. We looked at a couple of different adventure game engines to use for our game and decided on using Visionaire Studio. One of the requirements for the game engine was that it work on both Mac and Windows. We wanted our game to be able to record data as the user analysed the collected interview evidence so we used MySQL for the a database. And to add logic to the game for recording data we leveraged the Lua scripting language integrated into Visionaire Studio.

I made sure to order a Washington Metro SmarTrip card right away. It arrived a couple of days before my flight.

SmarTrip card

SmarTrip card

My flight on Friday, September 5, 2014, was early in the morning at 6AM. It connected through Atlanta, GA. I arrived at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in the early afternoon. I was able to use my SmarTrip card to board the metro rail station at the airport.

The Ronal Reagan Washington National Airport from the Metro station platform

The Ronal Reagan Washington National Airport from the Metro station platform

The trip on the Metro to the hotel, Hotel Palomar, was pretty easy. I took one train to Metro Center and switched to another train to Dupont Circle.

Riding escalator up from Dupont Circle station

Riding escalator up from Dupont Circle station

Once at street level it was a short walk to the hotel.

HotelPalomarRoom

Hotel Palomar room

View from Hotel Palomar room

View from Hotel Palomar room

Difference Engine was providing the space that we would be jamming in on Saturday and Sunday. So on Friday evening they were having a happy hour at their offices to let everyone find the location just off of Dupont Circle the night before and get a chance to meet the other teams participating in the game jam. I had a little bit of time before the meet up at Difference Engine so I went for a walk down Connecticut Avenue to 17th Street.

Found a Krispy Kreme on the way. Don't have any at home.

Found a Krispy Kreme on the way. Don’t have any at home.

I took a few pictures of the White House and then went back to the hotel.

Selfie with The White House

Selfie with The White House

Once arriving back at the hotel I met up with Cole and met Kristen for the first time in person. We decided to get some dinner before heading to the happy hour. We stopped at Pizzeria Paradiso. After dinner we went to the Difference Engine office. It is a remodeled bank building. We were escorted up the elevator to the second floor. There was a foosball table, arcade cabinet, and Band Hero set up in the front room. In the kitchen/gathering space (also where the ping pong table was) drinks and hors d’oeuvres were set up.

Difference Engine happy hour

Difference Engine happy hour

One of the Difference Engine employee’s showed us around the space that we would be using in the morning. There were three rooms that are normally used by developers. They had removed all of the computers but kept the monitors on the desks for us to use.  Chris, who drove from Toronto, Canada, where he now lives, arrived at the Difference Engine office late in the evening. This was the first time that we had met face to face. We soon called it a night. Before leaving though, I did ask if anyone on Team Pearbat wanted to go for a run in the morning.

However, at 6:30AM on Saturday morning, September 6, 2014, there were no takers. I was able to run down to the Lincoln Memorial before we needed to be at the Difference Engine offices at 9AM for the start of the jam. Here is the link to my GPS tracked run: http://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/584011061. There wasn’t a lot of traffic in the morning. I assume that was because it was a Saturday. Down at the Lincoln Memorial there were just a handful of people hanging out or taking pictures from the steps. While visiting the memorial most of the time I was the only one actually in the memorial.

When our team arrived at the Difference Engine offices we were one of the first teams there. We were assigned a “bay” and were able to pick which of three tables we wanted for our team. We set about connecting the laptops to the monitors and getting settled in.

Team Pearbat set up and ready to jam

Team Pearbat set up and ready to jam

Breakfast was provided for us. There were drinks and bagels. We were gathered into the front room for a kickoff.

Difference Engine meeting room in the morning empty

Difference Engine meeting room in the morning empty

DifferenceEngineMeetingRoomFull

Participants gathered in meeting room for kickoff

Mark DeLoura started the game jam by explaining how the White House decided to host this event. There were remarks from other officials. The teachers/educators that would be on hand for the two days to help provide us with any educational resources were introduced. And then we were released to start developing.

Mark DeLoura kicking off White House Game Jam

Mark DeLoura kicking off White House Game Jam

We went back to our team area and began developing our game. Lunch was also provided to us and there were drinks and snacks available throughout the two days. Cole and I spent much of the morning and afternoon setting up the initial game elements and sketching out the data to be collected. Kristen was working on dialog to use within the game. And Chris worked to create content like the outside of Ford’s Theatre and the game avatars. We went out to eat at The Burger Joint for dinner. We wanted to get out of the office for a little bit. Once done with dinner we returned to the office and stayed until about 10:30PM.

We arrived back at the office at 8AM on Sunday, September 7, 2014. Again, we were provided with breakfast. We had to have a playable prototype of our game ready for a checkpoint at 11:30AM that day.

"Who Killed Lincoln?" playable prototype

“Who Killed Lincoln?” playable prototype

Once we had the playable prototype complete we were provided lunch. At 1:00PM we had students arrive to playtest our games. They gave us feedback on the game that we could integrate back into the game.

"Who Killed Lincoln?" playtesting

“Who Killed Lincoln?” playtesting

We had to have a 2 minute game demo created and uploaded to the event Dropbox by 7PM that evening. Submitting the video was our ticket to be able to present on Monday morning. Everyone got the video done. :-)

After getting the video done we stopped to eat the provided pizza. Once done eating, we continued to polish the game a bit, adding support for storing data about how the player categorizes information discovered in the game. We wrapped up around 8:30PM and cleaned up our team space.

Cleaned up work space

Cleaned up work space

On Monday morning the teams were going to be presenting our videos from 9-11AM. Each team was allocated 3 minutes to present: 2 minutes for their video and 1 minute to talk. We would be presenting in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB) on the White House grounds.

Dressed and ready to present

Dressed and ready to present

We walked from the hotel to the EEOB and arrived at 8:15AM on Monday, September 8, 2014.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building sign

Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building sign

Eisenhower Executive Office Building

Eisenhower Executive Office Building

We had to go through security. Back before we even traveled to DC we had to provide our names, birth dates, social security numbers, and nationality to the game jam organizers to get us approved to enter the building. On this morning, we had to provide our ID to the guards who verified that we were on the list. There was a bit of small talk with the first set of guards because one of them was from the Waterloo, IA area and found it interesting that Cole and I were from the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City, IA area. We then followed a path to a small building. There was a window on the outside of the building. We again gave the guard our ID and he then gave us a visitors badge.

EEOB visitor badge

EEOB visitor badge

We waited by the building door and we were individually let into the building. Once in the building we were sent into a small room to stand on a mat. There was a short fence and on the other side was dog and it’s handler. After a few moments we were let out into a larger room with an x-ray machine and metal detector. We scanned our badge, walked through the metal detector, collected our x-rayed items and were let out of the room and told that we were free to walk around the building. This was because we were US citizens. Some of the participants weren’t citizens and they had to be escorted through the building. We were directed through the building to the auditorium. Here is the White House Game Jam presentation agenda. The presentation started with some speeches. Then each team had their three minutes. We presented in the second batch of team presentations.

Team Pearbat presenting

Team Pearbat presenting

We used our one minute to talk about:

  1. Our game about “Who Killed Lincoln?” was designed to teach in more detail a piece of history that most everyone knows the basics about. The game provides multiple perspectives about a historical event allowing the student to apply critical thinking to understand what happened at the event.
  2. Our game collects data about how the student is understanding the information as it is presented. This data can be used by teachers to determine how well the students are learning.
  3. Our team was a partnership between a large corporation and a small independent developer. And it worked!

After the presentation was over, which actually ended exactly at 11AM, we went up to the Indian Treaty Room for refreshments and to let people play our games.

Indian Treaty Room - originally the Navy's library

Indian Treaty Room – originally the Navy’s library

The “presidential” cupcakes were a standout hit of the event.

Presidential cupcakes

Presidential cupcakes

Me and my cupcake

Me and my cupcake

Tables were set up around the room where we set up our laptops to present our games.

Jesse demoing in Indian Treaty Room (from Karina  Linch's Instagram feed)

Jesse demoing in Indian Treaty Room (from Karina Linch’s Instagram feed)

Rovio Angry Birds developers and the Chief Technology Officer of the United State Megan Smith playing games

Rovio Angry Birds developers and the Chief Technology Officer of the United State Megan Smith playing games

 

West Wing from Indian Treaty Room

West Wing from Indian Treaty Room

Once the demos were over the event was over. Team Pearbat got a team photo in the Indian Treaty Room.

Team Pearbat in Indian Treaty Room

Team Pearbat in Indian Treaty Room

We left the EEOB, which is much easier than entering. We could go out any of the exits. There was a pad to scan our visitor badge and a slot to deposit it into. We then went through the guarded turnstile and were out on 17th Street. Cole and I had the same flight, so we went back to the hotel and picked up our stored luggage and changed clothes. We took the metro back to the airport and headed home. It was long weekend but a very memorable one.

Pentagon from the air

Pentagon from the air

The Office of Educational Technology has posted videos from the weekend on the #WHGameJam 2014 YouTube playlist.

The White House Education Game Jam sticker

The White House Education Game Jam sticker

First month of Internet telephony results

April 1st, 2014

My Internet telephony landline replacement system has been used for one complete month. Here are some financial results.

My last traditional landline month of service: $47.46
Internet telephony – Twillio and Callcentric – March 2014: $8.12
Savings: $39.34

I am very happy with these results. These results may not be typical as we (obviously) don’t use the home phone very much. The traditional home phone service wasn’t usage based which results in a large per minute cost. The Internet telephony system meets our needs better because of the pay-what-you-use model. It gives us a much lower monthly cost with no loss of features.

Cutting the landline phone

March 30th, 2014

I know it is 2014 and many people have already dropped their landline phone. But I have two kids who aren’t yet old enough to have a mobile phone and I want to make sure that they can use a traditional phone in our house if the need should arise. This February 21, 2014, I fully activated my Internet based home phone system which replaced my traditional CenturyLink phone service. My Internet based phone service is composed of an OBi device to interface with my existing phone handset, Twilio for incoming calls, and Callcentric for outgoing calls.

Callcentric is a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) Internet phone provider. They can provide incoming and outgoing phone service using your own telephone adapter. One of the things that I like about Callcentric is the ability to use a pay-per-minute phone plan. Since we typically use our mobile phones it currently doesn’t make financial sense to buy a lot of VOIP minutes. For outgoing calls, Callcentric charges $0.0198 per minutes to USA and Canada. Callcentric also provides 911 services at $1.50 per month.

I could use Callcentric for incoming calls as well. But I am using Twilio to create an incoming call voice application. I have had a little experience in automated telephone software. In my first job out of college I worked at MCI on 1-800-COLLECT. As part of that job I worked on a team the developed collect messaging and we patented the idea in US 5787150 A: Method and system for automated collect call messaging. Back then, the software was written on an AIX Unix system in C and interacted directly with the telco switch. Now with Twilio you can create a REST application that Twilio invokes when it has telephony events. The application that I developed allows the caller to choose to connect to my mobile phone directly, my wife’s mobile phone directly, or connect with my home phone. This application was written in Python and is hosted on Google App Engine. I have created a GitHub repository Mytelco to host an example of the application. When the incoming caller chooses to connect to one of our cell phones the outgoing connection is a voice call. When the incoming caller chooses to connect to our home phone the outgoing connection is a SIP call.

Here is the current cost breakdown of the system:

Old System

  • CenturyLink local phone service: $47.46 per month

New System

  • One time costs
  • Callcentric
    • 911 service: $1.50 per month
    • Outgoing calls: $0.0198 per minute
  • Twilio
    • Phone Number: 2 x $1.00 = $2.00 per month
    • Incoming call: $0.01 per minute
    • Outgoing connection voice: $0.02 per minute
    • Outgoing connection SIP: $0.005 per minute
  • Google App Engine
    • usage based, currently free

 

2012 Walmart Black Friday HP Laptop Dual Boots Windows 8 and Ubuntu

December 27th, 2012

So last night I was able to upgrade my Walmart Black Friday HP 2000-bf69WM laptop from 4 to 8 Gig of memory. Today, I got Ubuntu installed on it so that it can dual boot between Windows 8 and Ubuntu. I followed the steps from this post to shrink the Windows 8 partition to make space for Ubuntu (shrunk by 150 Gig) and installed Ubuntu via USB key: Installing Ubuntu on a Pre-Installed Windows 8 system.

2012 Walmart Black Friday Laptops Support 8 Gig of Memory

December 26th, 2012

I bought the 2012 Walmart Black Friday Compaq CQ58-bf9WM laptop for my daughter and the HP 2000-bf69WM laptop for me. Both are running Windows 8, a 64-bit OS. We just just opened each laptop yesterday for Christmas. The Compaq came with 2 Gig of memory and the HP came with 4 Gig of memory. Both laptops look like they are based on similar if not the same base system. The motherboard only has 1 memory slot. I ordered a 16 Gig (2 x 8G) set of DIMMs; one DIMM for each laptop. I was able to open the bottom of the laptops, take out the 2 or 4 Gig DIMM and insert an 8 Gig DIMM. Upon booting up the machines, they both reported 8 Gig of memory. Success!

Here is the memory that I ordered from Newegg.com: G.SKILL 16GB (2 x 8G) 204-Pin DDR3 SO-DIMM DDR3 1333 (PC3 10600) Laptop Memory Model F3-10600CL9D-16GBSQ

webLightSwitch Project Announcement

January 25th, 2012
Screen shot of webLightSwitch running in the Android browser

Screen shot of webLightSwitch running in the Android browser

I have developed a new project called webLightSwitch. You can find details about the project on the webLightSwitch project page. The project is a simple but useful program to allow me to control some of the lights in my home via a web interface. This allows me to use my mobile phone to turn on and off the lamp or the outdoor lights at my house. The control software is written in JavaScript and runs on a BeagleBone using node.js. The user interface, as seen in the screen shot, is implemented with jQuery Mobile to make the interface touch friendly. The lights are controlled by Smarthome INSTEON controllers. The BeagleBone communicates with the lighting controllers via a Smarthome PowerLinc Modem.

I have been running the software for over a week now. With it being winter right now in Iowa, it gets dark well before I arrive home from work around 6PM. Using my mobile phone to be able to turn on the outdoor lights is very convenient. The experience is similar to my automatic garage door opener: drive up to drive way, press button to open garage door, and press button to turn on outside lights.

I plan to develop a more advanced home automation system, but this simple system has proven itself to be useful. In addition to the webLightSwitch project page, you can find the source code on GitHub and a video demonstration on YouTube.

Logging steps via Google Docs

September 15th, 2011

My employer, Pearson, provided the opportunity for its employees to participate in the 2011 Global Corporate Challenge. The GCC consisted of teams of 7 who tracked their daily steps counted with a pedometer for 16 weeks. The idea is to motivate people to become more active. The event started on May 19, 2011 and ended September 6, 2011. Being an engineering type of person, I liked the idea of gathering the daily step count as a metric for activity. The event suggested a goal of achieving 10,000 steps a day. I was pretty active recording my pedometer activity every morning via the SMS text message data entry technique: the GCC has an SMS short code and you entered the date and number of steps. Submitted text messages were recorded in your step log on the GCC web site. Being able to enter the data via my phone was very handy as it let me enter data while I was on vacation without missing a day. But, now that the event is over, I still wanted to keep track of my step counts. Here is the technique that I worked out using Google Docs to record my step counts.

I created a Google Docs Form to collect my daily step count. The collected data is stored in a Google Docs Spreadsheet. The form can be viewed in a web browser or in Google Docs for Android. Since I have an Android phone, the form lets me use my phone to still collect my daily step counts each morning. And since the data is stored in a spreadsheet, I can perform calculations on the data to get my total and average step counts and even graph my daily totals. Here is the process that I use.

Read the rest of this entry »

Adding the handy separator to Cygwin

September 15th, 2011

Separator Screen Shot

Lifehacker had a pretty neat post yesterday which added “a Handy Separator Between Commands in Your Terminal on Mac OS X and Linux.” I use a Cygwin terminal on my Windows machine, and the Linux script almost worked: the dashes didn’t print. I tracked down my particular problem to the COLUMNS variable used to calculate how many dashes to print in the separator. In my Cygwin terminal prompt, running “export $COLUMNS” showed the variable was blank; meaning that no dashes were used for the separator. Looking at the Mac modification, I noticed that it used the command “shopt -s checkwinsize” to check the window size and if necessary update the LINES and COLUMNS variables. So after adding these two lines to the beginning of the Linux “.bash_ps1″ script, here https://github.com/emilis/emilis-config/blob/master/.bash_ps1, the separator worked for my Cygwin terminal.

shopt -s checkwinsize
export COLUMNS

Sandman Slim book review

August 13th, 2011

I finished the book Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey last Saturday — I think it took me a week to catch my breath. This story was basically non-stop action. It a story about a man, Stark, who is seeking revenge on the people who killed his girlfriend after these same people sent Stark to Hell. Yep, Stark was a live human living in Hell. He had to escape Hell and return to Earth to track down the magicians who sent him Downtown. The story follows Stark’s investigation into where the responsible parties can now be found after living in Hell for 11 years.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I could not put it down because it moves so quickly from one scene to the next. One reason may be because the book is not arranged in chapters; it is just one continuous story. It is full of magic mixed together with Hellions and Angels, God and the Devil, and Stark’s vendetta against his old “friends”. The language used in the book is quite colorful. The descriptions of other worldly locations provide depth to the story. I could almost see one of the Whedon brothers turning this book into a movie.

Ironic Icealert

February 3rd, 2011

At my place of employment, The Icealert System™ (trademark of Icealert, Inc.) was installed this fall at all of the doorways and the entrance driveway. The Icealert System™ display turns from white to blue when the potential for ice occurs. Now, I live and work in Iowa. We expect it to get cold. (It was a high of 13 degrees Fahrenheit today–which is below freezing, and a bit below the average of  31 [which is still below freezing]). So I was interested to see how The Icealert System™ would be helpful in such a climate where there are extended days, perhaps weeks, where it doesn’t get above freezing. I have been waiting for a day like today and was prepared with my camera phone to take this picture.

Snow covered Icealert indicator

The Icealert System™ indicator is showing “blue” because there is a potential for ice. Well, I guess there is more than potential, as half of the indicator is obscured by snow! This “obscured by snow” indication is not listed as a feature of the indicator on the The Icealert System™ web page. (In fact, in the pictures of the indicator on the companies web site, none of the picture show the indicator in snow.) This snow indication may be a hidden feature of the indicator–sweet.

This kind of reminds me of The Weather Rope. It is typically a board with one end of a small length of rope tied to the board and the other end of the rope is left dangling. There is some variation of this legend included on the board:

Rope Weather
Still Calm
Moving Windy
Wet Rain
Shaking Earthquake
Gone Tornado