SJC Inspire: how to design a successful video game

Very excited to announce the launch of the SJC Inspire digital magazine this week – a project I’ve been working on for the past few months in my role as Access and Outreach Associate for STEM at St John’s College, Oxford.

The first issues is ‘how to design a successful video game’ and features articles by researchers at St John’s, video interviews with students at the college, and practice puzzles set (and solved) by real Oxford tutors (myself included). I’ve highlighted some of my favourites below, but be sure to check out the full contents of the issue on the website here.

Maths in video games

My former tutorial partner, James Hyde, now works for Creative Assembly developing hit titles such as Halo Wars and Halo Wars 2. Here he explains how maths has helped him to land his dream job…

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Fun and games at the circus

Try out this maths puzzle set by St John’s maths tutor Dr David Seifert. If you send your answers in to inspire@sjc.ox.ac.uk you might even win a goodie bag!

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How to earn billions by giving something away for free

St John’s Economics tutor Dr Kate Doornik explains the pricing strategy behind the incredibly successful ‘Fortnite: Battle Royale’. Originally given away for free, it is expected to make over $3 billion in sales in 2018…

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This robot is a ‘Cheetah’

Robots are developing at an incredible rate, with their ability to perform real-world tasks improving almost by the minute. Such rapid development doesn’t come without downsides, and there are many people who believe that artificial intelligence (AI) could become too powerful, leading to the possibility of robots taking our jobs, or perhaps even taking over the world! Whilst these fears might not be completely unjustified, let’s instead focus on the positives for the time being and marvel at the astonishing accomplishments being made in the field of robotics.

The Cheetah robot, developed by scientists at MIT, is roughly the same shape and size as a small dog, and has been designed to be able to walk across difficult terrains efficiently and effectively. Such a trait is particularly useful when we need to explore dangerous and hazardous environments that may be unsuitable for humans, such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant that collapsed in Japan in 2011. Like all robots, it uses algorithms to help it to navigate, stabilise itself, and ensure that its movements are natural. The latest version, the Cheetah 3, was unveiled in early July, and I think it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t look too far out of place in the animal kingdom!

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[Image courtesy of Sangbae Kim, MIT]

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Cheetah 3 is that the strangely adorable hunk of metal performs the majority of its navigation without any visual input, meaning that it is effectively blind. The researchers at MIT believe that this is a more robust way to design the robot, since visual data can be noisy and unreliable, whereas an input such as touch is always available. Let’s imagine that you are in a pitch-black room; how would you find your way around? Your eyes are pretty much useless, but you can use your sense of touch to feel around the environment, making sure that you don’t bump into walls or obstacles. It’s also important to step carefully, so that you don’t misjudge where the floor is, or tread too strongly and break through something. The Cheetah 3 takes all of this into account as it gracefully glides across even the roughest terrain.

One of the key ideas that was addressed in the new model is contact detection. This means that the robot is able to work out when to commit to putting pressure on a step, or whether it should swing its leg instead, based on the surface that it is stepping onto. This has a massive impact on its ability to balance when it is walking on rough terrain, or one that is full of different obstacles; it also makes each step quicker and more natural. Going back to our dark room, you are likely to step quite tentatively if you can’t see where you are going as this will allow you to react to whatever surface you come into contact with, and adjust your motion as required. With the latest update, the clever ‘canine’ can make these adjustments by itself in a natural manner.

The Cheetah 3 also contains a new and improved prediction model. This can calculate how much pressure will need to be applied to each leg when it experiences a force, by estimating what will happen in half a second’s time. Returning once again to our pitch-black room, imagine how great it would be if you were able to predict what you’re about to step on and adjust your path accordingly – no more treading on sharp objects or stubbing your toe! The scientists tested the power of the new model by kicking the robot when it was walking on a treadmill. Using its prediction algorithm, the Cheetah 3 was able to quickly calculate the forces it needed to exert in order to correctly balance itself again and keep moving. Whilst I can confirm that no animals were harmed in the making of this robot, whether or not the robot itself felt harm is perhaps a question for another day…

The new and improved Cheetah 3 is certainly one of the more remarkable recent accomplishments in the field of robotics. Its natural movements and quick corrections mean that it excellently mimics animal navigation, and it is easy to see how such a robot would be extremely useful for exploring dangerous terrains. Such incredible progress in the study of robotics is as impressive and exciting as it is scary. While it is extraordinary that we are able to replicate animal movements so closely, it has rightly made many people slightly worried; will robots eventually be able to completely replace us? We can only cross our fingers that these critters have no plans for world domination just yet…

Kai Laddiman

Blueprint Interview

Interview with the University of Oxford’s Blueprint magazine about my mission to popularise maths and my outreach work with the St John’s Inspire Programme. The full interview with Blueprint’s Shaunna Latchman can be found in the online magazine here.

While some avoid arithmetic at all costs, Tom fully immerses himself daily teaching maths to the first and second year undergraduate students at St Hugh’s College. He also arranges activities for St John’s College as the Access and Outreach Associate for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) for the Inspire programme. Another activity is planning and filming content for his own outreach programme – Tom Rocks Maths.

‘It was the subject that felt most natural to me’, explains Tom, who first realised his love for numbers aged seven when his class had been set ten long multiplication questions. He raced through the whole book. However it wasn’t until he received ten A*s in his GCSEs that he began considering an Oxbridge education. ‘Academically there isn’t much of a difference [between Oxford and Cambridge]’ Tom comments, ‘but Oxford felt more like home.’

Later, after completing his PhD in Applied Maths at Cambridge, he was offered an internship with public engagement team, the Naked Scientists. The group strip back science to help make a complicated theory easy to digest. Weekly podcasts are broadcasted through BBC Radio 5 Live and ABC Australia, where audiences reach up to one million listeners a week.

Tom saw an opportunity to bring his appreciation for maths to the masses, but he wanted to do it with a twist. Eager to move away from the stereotypes of maths being a serious subject taught by older men in tweed jackets, he thought ‘what is the best way to make maths less serious? Doing it in my underwear!’ And so, the Naked Mathematician was born.

Since joining St Hugh’s, Tom continues to break down day-to-day activities on his YouTube channel to prove that maths is an integral part of everything we do.

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His passion for engagement doesn’t end there. The Inspire programme, part of the Link Colleges initiative, is a series of events, visits, workshops and online contact for pupils in years 9 to 13. Tom works with the non-selective state schools in the London boroughs of Harrow and Ealing.

The Link Colleges programme simplifies communication between UK schools and the University. Every school in the country is linked with an Oxford college, with the hope that this connection will encourage students to explore the possibility of attending university.

‘The aim is to have sustained contact with the same group of students over five years,’ says Tom. ‘There are still students who haven’t thought about university, or maybe it’s not the norm in their family or area to attend university. So, we explain what it is, how it works and the positives and negatives. We want to inform and inspire them.’

Tom is responsible for arranging all STEM events across the year for 60 students in each year group. He calls on the expertise of his colleagues at Oxford as well as encouraging a partnership with the University of Cambridge and several universities in London. ‘The syllabus includes various topics such as the science of food and using maths to improve diet.’

During Tom’s famed Maths vs Sport talk, students are encouraged to participate in an on-stage penalty shootout – but only after learning about the mathematical makeup behind such a pivotal moment in a football game, of course.

Tom believes maths is made more accessible by relating it the world around us. He encourages his students to question things, like why bees make hexagonal shapes in their hives and how many Pikachus it takes to light up a lightbulb.

Whether visiting schools up and down the country to deliver talks, recording the weekly dose of Funbers for BBC radio – fun facts about numbers that we didn’t realise we secretly wanted to know – or in front of his class of students, Tom is certainly making waves in the world of maths.

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