Finding of the week #313

Ideas for (Mentally) Surviving the Time as a PhD Student

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about some recommendations for new PhD students that most likely will help to overcome the stress experienced.

The pursuit of a PhD is a very difficult and stressful time when simultaneously working in academia. The challenge even increases when the assigned research projects are only connected to a small degree to the PhD topic as well as when teaching has to be done. In such a scenario, the PhD always comes last and can often be continued after work only.

In such a situation, it is critical to organize one’s day carefully and to work as efficiently as possible. One approach is to either use existing guidelines for certain work processes or to try to define own protocols that support reoccurring events such as grading students at the end of the lecture period. Here, it is very practical to define strict goals that can easily be checked during an exam. Also, using a similar approach to conduct the exams simultaneously allows for an easy repetition as well as for a fair grading process.

The same rules apply to research projects. It is very helpful to create guidelines and protocols that support the planning of future experiments. By using these protocols, one merely has to go through the individual steps to prepare a new experiment and to avoid mistakes that could even negatively affect the experimental results.

However, for these methods to be effective, it is also important to reflect on the outcomes of a repeated application and to update the protocols based on the results of the analysis. In this way, the own workflow not only is streamlined, but also improved over time.

Still, even with a perfectly streamlined workflow, things frequently turn out to be different and result in additional tasks that were not expected. As a result of this, one often experiences a high degree of frustration as the progress of the PhD once again gets delayed. In addition, when finally being able to work towards it, the work has a high mental demand that can result in a quick exhaustion.

Therefore, aside from improving the own workflow, it is even more important to find activities that help to reduce the experienced frustration and to regain energy to stay focussed during stressful times. Personally, I can recommend activities that do not include the use of digital media, e.g., doing sport, as most of the time at work is already spent in front of a computer screen. The probably best approach is to set up a fixed schedule. Adhering to such a schedule results in the requirement to take a break and thus to regain energy before the degree of frustration becomes too high.

In summary, pursuing a PhD is a very stressful goal that requires a high degree of self-organization and, more importantly, activities to counteract the stress that is experienced.

Finding of the week #312

Following the Rules

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the ideas of being used to read instructions more closely when being a vested computer game player.

Most computer games provide players with specific goals and challenges. The goals are communicated in a clear and precise way. Hence, players exactly know what they have to do to overcome a challenge or to solve a quest. While working on the solution of the game goals, computer games provide immediate feedback to inform players that they are performing the correct actions.

For instance, a computer game can provide a quest that requires the player to collect 10 red apples: „Collect 10 red apples in Mrs Smith’s garden.“ In this way, players exactly know how they can complete this quest. A player still has to read the quest information carefully as the apples not only have to be red, but also found on Mrs Smith’s garden.

Thus, by providing players with these clear rules, they practice to read instructions carefully. Also, they learn how to quickly understand an assignment’s goals. The gameplay can include some time constraints that put the player under pressure to make decisions quickly. This constraint makes it important to analyze a task as quickly as possible.

Carefully reading instructions also is a common requirement in our daily life. For instance, it can be an assignment from an educational course or a request sent by someone’s supervisor. Only when the instructions are understood properly, the task can successfully be solved. Just skimming through the information might result in a task not completely solved. This can result in bad consequences like getting a bad grade in an exam.

Based on this theoretical analysis, it might be possible that computer game players can analyze and understand tasks better than non-players. Their gameplay experience might lead to a training of their analytical abilities to quickly and correctly understand a given task. In this way, computer game players might be able to work more efficiently.

In conclusion, playing computer games might also result in an improved ability to analyze any given situation as well as to successfully identify and to carry out the correct next steps.

Finding of the week #311

Putting the Pieces Together

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the process of writing a cumulative PhD thesis.

This week, I worked for incredible two hours on my PhD thesis. The rest of the week was just filled with exams, marking projects and meetings. Despite the lack of time, I clearly saw one thing I was working on over the last years: the red thread that connects all my different papers. It was a great feeling to see that all my thoughts I put into writing the papers payed off and seem to result in a comprehensive analysis of my research topic. My advisors might think differently when they will read the thesis, but for me it all makes sense!

Overall, I am very fortunate as last year in December the regulations got adjusted and finally allow for a cumulative thesis. In this way, I „merely“ need to write a short text that provides an overview of my field of research and connects all the individual papers to one comprehensive thesis.

Thus far, I completed most of the overview – only one small segment is missing – and started to introduce and to connect the papers. Until this week, I was considering to put the papers into the appendix and to reference them in the main text that provides a summary of each paper. At the end of this week’s first hour of writing the thesis, a friend suggested that I might just embed the papers at the positions where I would normally summarize their contributions.

This sparked a lot of new ideas and resulted in me putting together the core part of the thesis within this week’s second hour. Of course, the introductions for each paper are not detailed enough, but it has reached a level that is easy to extend. Now, my thesis mainly lacks this one specific theoretical part and a comprehensive discussion of my results.

Personally, seeing my thoughts of how the individual research projects are connected to take shape in my text processing software was a very rewarding feeling. Suddenly, finishing the PhD seems doable and is only a few steps away. If I can free up enough time, my personal goal of completing the thesis by the end of the month of March is still feasible. Once the thesis is complete, I only have to go through the lengthy process of receiving feedback from my advisors to finally submit it…

It feels good to finally put the pieces together and I cannot wait to say farewell to this project!

Finding of the week #310

Returning after two years of development

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the enjoyment of playing early access games.

More than two years ago, I played Astroneer just after its release as an early access game. Astroneer puts the player into the role of a little astronaut who lands on the surface of a planet. There, the player is challenged to set up a base, perform research and finally construct spacecraft to visit other planets in the solar system. The game is an open world game and allows players to discover the virtual environment at their own pace. Although not being polished, the game already was a lot of fun to play.

Astroneer

One of the most fun elements of playing early access games is to discover small bugs and glitches that break some parts of the game. Experiencing some visual glitches often results in some hilarious moments that cause an additional level of joy during the gameplay. For instance, I remember that the planets one could see in the sky were falling apart at some point. Suddenly, the planets were split into smaller pieces that started to drift apart, thus revealing a planet’s inner structure.

After having explored every planet in Astroneer’s solar system, I had the option to either continue playing the game to experience freshly added features or to stop playing it for a while to not get bored of it. I decided to stop playing the game and to wait for the release of its final version. In this way, I kept the game in good memory and avoided to go through the usual repetitive gameplay of early access games.

Typically, after the implementation of some major gameplay changes, a player often has to restart an ongoing game, thus going through the early stages of a game over and over again. While this can be fun when the changes affect the early game, it mostly becomes repetitive and annoying. As a result, players tend to „burn out“ on these games.

Now, two years later, Astroneer finally is released and so I returned to it. After this long break, the game feels almost like a new game as some game mechanics, e.g., researching new technologies, were changed completely and the graphics look way more polished and colorful. In this way, I can now enjoy Astroneer for a second time and basically play a different game.

In conclusion, playing early access games can be a lot of fun especially when glitches are accepted and more importantly enjoyed. However, due to the ongoing development process, players might burn out on the game when they have to start a new game for too many times. Thus, by only revisiting the game from time to time, the enjoyment can be preserved and the changes can be more appreciated.

Finding of the week #309

Energetic Physical Activities

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the problems of simulating physically energetic moments in computer games.

Recently, as I was exercising on a running machine, I experienced an interesting phenomenon of actually feeling my own performance. Normally, one can experience a feeling of satisfaction when a new level of performance is reached, e.g., achieving a new record time. This time, however, I was not only experiencing a new level of performance, but also noticing how I was affecting the environment. In particular, I noticed how the running machine was slightly shaking as I was running on it at a fast pace. It was like a super energetic moment to me.

This reminded me of a visualization style for delivering particularly strong blows during the gameplay of action games. Here, game designers let the view of the player shake for a short amount of time. This suggests that the player’s attack affected the entire virtual environment. When this frequently occurs during the gameplay, players might perceive the game as highly energetic.

However, in contrast to my running experience, the gameplay only provides visual feedback and lacks a directly physical involvement of the player in the actions. Naturally, due to the game immersion, players perceive it as a real event, but the actions remain artificial. In this way, the gameplay lacks a whole-body involvement which might result in an overall improved experience.

This would be different when targeting immersive Virtual Reality. By using tracked game controllers and a tracked Head-Mounted Display, a player’s physical action can easier be used to trigger actions inside of the virtual environments. Unfortunately, fitting haptic feedback is not yet possible. As a result, game designers would need to stick to visual cues. These cues need to be carefully implemented to avoid evoking cybersickness in the player.

In conclusion, although computer games might be capable of generating visually appealing simulations of physical activities, the lack of true physical involvement and haptic feedback potentially reduces the overall satisfaction in comparison to the real world activity. True virtual sport unfortunately needs some more time …

Finding of the week #308

Breaking Games and Exploring Limits

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the desire to explore the virtual environment

Computer games consist of several game mechanics. Game mechanics represent a game’s rules as they encode the underlying principles and overall game knowledge. Game mechanics not only create the virtual environment, but also allow for an interaction with it. This interaction ultimately creates a game’s gameplay.

In this way, a computer game is based on strict rules that are executed and checked by the game. Depending on the design, these game rules can be quite complex, thus providing players with a broad variety of different interaction possibilities. As a result, new players of a particular game learn by exploration and observation. They try out different ideas and interactions with the virtual environments and learn from the feedback provided.

For instance, when playing Minecraft, players might discover TNT blocks that explode and destroy a part of the environment when ignited. Being aware of this game mechanic might initiate a series of experiments to find out how capable TNT is and what can be done with it. By observing the results of the interactions, players learn the game’s rules.

However, the desire to discover new knowledge might not end at this point, but initiate further research to determine the limits of the virtual environments. In the aforementioned example, this could mean to find out what happens if a huge number of TNT blocks explode at the same time. Similarly, when playing Astroneer, players are able to dig into the ground. Thus, some started an experiment to find out what happens when they reach the core of a planet.

In general, testing for the limits of the virtual environments is a common goal, when only a fixed environment is provided. What happens when the end of the world is reached? What happens if previously determined limits are broken? Finding answers to those questions sometimes reveals funny glitches or even breaks the game.

While this gameplay might not be intended by the game developers, it represents another form of enjoying a computer game. It satisfies the desire to explore the virtual environment and to learn all about its underlying principles. This insight can also be valuable for game designers as it indicates that providing a lot of different interaction possibilities and hidden secrets can increase a game’s overall entertaining aspects.

In conclusion, exploring virtual environments not only is directed towards the environment itself but also towards its limits and all underlying principles.

Finding of the week #307

Observed Computer Game Immersion

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about computer game immersion and how it can dominate a player’s attention and awareness.

Immersion in a computer game means that a player is completely absorbed by the gameplay and forgets about the surrounding environment as well as the fact that a game is played. The attention is completely directed towards the gameplay and the player feels as if they are part of the virtual environment or at least that they have full control over it. When immersed in a computer game, all virtual events feel real and can evoke deep emotions. These emotions are even carried over into the real world and combine the real life with the virtual life.

However, the absorbtion rarely is total. Often, players are only partly immersed and split their attention between the real world and the virtual world. For instance, when two players play in multiplayer mode in front of the same screen using a gaming console, they continue to interact with each other or do have a conversation. The degree to which a player’s attention is directed towards the computer game depends on the player’s mental and physical involvement into the gameplay.

This shared attention also allows for the creation of Let’s Play videos (LPs). These videos cover a player’s gameplay and are enhanced by the player’s commentary which provides a second story arch in parallel to the game’s narrative. Personally, I enjoy creating LPs as this is a completely different approach to playing computer games. It is not only about enjoying the narrative or the gameplay, but also about using games to create something new. Thus, creating LPs is a very creative process that provides an entertaining aspect in itself.

Recently, I noticed the above-mentioned phenomenon of the shared attention and how it scales with the personal involvement of the player. Normally, I play Minecraft just as a background activity while discussing various things, such as spaceflight news, scientific results and personal experiences.

However, as I discovered some new game mechanics that have been added to the game with the last content update, I noticed how my personal involvement and hence the immersion increased. While exploring and discovering the new game mechanics, my ability to discuss topics declined and I frequently got distracted while talking.

Based on this subjective experience, I validated my own understanding of computer game immersion. 1) The degree of immersion quickly scales back up and down with the degree to which a player is involved in the gameplay. 2) A high degree of immersion dominates a player’s attention and immediately scales back other processes taking place outside of the virtual world, e.g., talking to other people.

In conclusion, computer game immersion is a powerful experience that not only evokes deep emotions, but also dominates a player’s attention and awareness. Simultaneously, immersion directly scales up or down based on player’s personal involvement in the gameplay.

Finding of the week #306

The Need for Natural Input Devices

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the need for natural input devices to enhance the immersive effects of virtual environments.

Recently, I enjoyed playing X-Plane 11 in Virtual Reality (VR) mode. Being visually immersed in a detailed and accurate cockpit of an airplane was an unprecedented experience to me. It was one of the most realistic flight experiences in a simulation thus far.

This week, we gave Assetto Corsa a try in VR mode. The experience was quite similar, as it allowed me to accurately steer the virtual racing cars by allowing me to look to the sides without any issues. Also, the natural perspective made it much easier to find the correct braking points.

Ferrari LaFerrari in Assetto Corsa
Ferrari LaFerrari in Assetto Corsa

However, these two very positive VR experiences were affected by some overall comfort issues with the HTC Vive’s head-mounted display (HMD) as well as the control devices. The HMD is designed to almost completely reduce visual information from the real environment and to replace these information with computer generated ones. For this purpose, the HMD has to sit tight over a user’s eyes.

While this might work well for people who do not need to wear glasses, it is a constant struggle for me. Frequently, my glasses get caught by the cushions as well as pressed on my nose. This works for short exposure times, but becomes quite uncomfortable when using the HMD over a longer period of time. This issue is even enhanced when using the Oculus which is even smaller.

A more general issue comes from the control devices used. The controllers often feel like a combination of a TV remote and a gamepad. They of course allow for an interaction with the virtual environments in an efficient way, but also feel not very natural. Instead, their bulkiness often reduces my perception of the virtual environment and the feeling of being a part of it. Although others might disagree, this feeling is even enhanced when using gamepads. Here, every interaction feels highly artificial. Thus far, only highly specialized input devices like racing wheels provide a decent natural feeling.

In conclusion, while I still see the importance of developing better devices for visualizing the simulations, improving the comfort and designing new input devices should be focussed first. By developing devices that provide a more natural feeling, e.g., gloves, the immersive effect of VR as well as desktop simulations could be improved.

Finding of the week #305

Pathfinding Computer Games

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the lack of good pathfinding games that challenge players with difficult terrain.

One of my favorite hobbies is hiking. The more wild and untouched the nature around me is, the more happy I am. Wild nature not only looks beautiful, but it also is more challenging and adventurous to get through it. Finding new paths and ways to overcome obstacles provides me personally with a great experience as I feel more connected to nature and the world around me.

The fascination of exploring the wilderness also plays a major role for me when playing computer games. I enjoyed playing The Long Dark and Spintires. The Long Dark is a survival game that takes place in the Canadian wilderness. Players need to seek shelter from the cold outside temperatures, hunt for food and deal with strong snow storms that quickly can become a dangerous threat. Despite just being a game, being exposed to the virtual elements and finding ways to survive under these harsh conditions provides me with a good substitute for times when I cannot explore the real world.

Spintires challenges players with the goal to drive heavy trucks through very muddy and difficult terrain. Trucks can easily get stuck in this kind of terrain, thus requiring players to find other ways to overcome the obstacles, e.g., using the winch. As a result, Spintires provides me with the aspect of actually being challenged to find a way through wild nature.

Unfortunately, there are not many other games that feature such a focus on exploration and pathfinding. Of course, other games approach the idea of pathfinding, but they mostly create challenges by requiring a certain timing. For instance, the Tomb Raider games require players to find a way through difficult terrain. However, from a pure game mechanic perspective, solving challenges mainly requires jumping or pressing other interaction keys at the right moment.

A potential explanation for this is the problem of finding good game mechanics that provide an exciting amount of choices and a huge degree of variety during the gameplay. This is due to the fact that computer games need to be playable with common control devices. For instance, most games implement the WASD keys for general travel. These four keys however cannot allow for a gameplay that mirrors the challenge of crossing a stream via slippery rocks. Here, one needs to use the entire body to avoid falling into the water which would need a tracking of a players entire body.

Thus, these challenges are reduced to more simple interactions like pressing a button in the right moment to initiate a sequence of events. While this might result in a very polished visualization of the events, it does not provide me with the same rewarding experience as actually being required to deal with the environment directly.

In conclusion, pathfinding games might provide an exciting gameplay, but they require also complex input game mechanics. This, however, would result in a very artificial gameplay as players need to remember a large amount of keybindings. Hopefully, the continuous advancements in computer technology, such as better tracking systems, will finally allow pathfinding games that go beyond the usual jump and run approach.

Finding of the week #304

Flying in VR

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the experiences I made during my first flight using VR technology.

Despite being involved in Virtual Reality (VR) research for several years by now, I rarely came across VR applications that really kept me interested and motivated for a longer time. Often, I explored and tried out my own capabilities inside a particular virtual environment, but quickly stopped using it after having experienced most of the game mechanics. The reason for this is the lack of content that keeps me motivated beyond the initial curiosity.

This changed as a friend invited me to an X Plane 11 VR session. X Plane 11 presents a highly realistic flight simulation. It provides many realistic airplanes and allows users to practice flight procedures. Personally, I spent many hours playing flight simulations so I was immediately excited to give it a try in VR.

The most exciting moment was as I put on the head-mounted display and suddenly found myself inside a virtual Cessna 172. The realistic 3D cockpit gave me the feeling of actually being in a real airplane. All elements and instruments were at their correct position. Also, all control elements could be grabbed and manipulated using the game controllers. In this way, it was possible to use the yoke with one controller while adjusting the throttle with the second one.

This unprecendented flight experience was enhanced by the possibility to freely move my head and to change my perspective. Thus far, I was used to fixed views when playing flight simulations. This not only allowed me to better determine my position in respect to the runway, but also to have an overall improved overview over the instruments. It never was that easy to land a virtual airplane!

As a result, I was completely amazed by this VR flight experience. However, like most other simulations, things start to feel a bit unrealistic when haptic feedback is missing. While this is still ok for flicking switches or turning knobs, it becomes very difficult for using the yoke as well as the throttle. Of course, visual feedback helped me to keep the plane under control, but having no real control device in my hand reduced the overall immersive effect.

As a result of this, X Plane 11 VR might not necessarily allow for a direct training transfer in respect to actually flying an airplane. However, the realistic 3D cockpit models and accurate positions of relevant controls allow for a very effective and realistic training for procedures and check lists.

In the end, despite these limitations, it was the best flight simulation experience I ever made. Also, it was the first time, that I did not get quickly bored after having experienced most of the existing game mechanics. I am looking forward to my next virtual flight hours!