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October 2, 2014
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

logo for Sandy Hook video game
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An image from the submarine video game. Photo Credit: Jeff Pessutti, NEFSC/NOAA

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NEFSC Educational Video Game May Soon Become a Smartphone App

Want to tour the Northeast U.S. Shelf underwater in a virtual submersible, learning about the variety of marine life encountered on your tour, and even track a right whale, all in an environment built using real data?

There’s an app for that… almost.

It’s coming, courtesy of Jeff Pessutti, an equipment specialist in the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)'s Behavioral Ecology Branch at the J.J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory at Sandy Hook, N.J.

Pessutti has been working on a video game, currently called NOAA Submarine Explorer, for the past few years. It began as a challenge to display bathymetric and other research data in a way that would be both interesting and fun for kids ages 7-14 who attend the laboratory’s annual open house. It has become Jeff Pessutti’s passion.

That desire to share the wonders of ocean research and exploration and the work of the Sandy Hook Laboratory with young students has led Pessutti to spend many nights and weekends on his home computer developing artwork and conceptual models. Although he studied physics, has artistic talent, and knows his way around graphics software programs as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) user, Pessutti says much of what he has developed was learned on the job, with his work at home a collateral duty.

“I have received a lot of support for this project from my supervisor, Dr. Beth Phelan, and the Sandy Hook Lab Director, Dr. Tom Noji," Pessutti said. Help has also come from the laboratory's Image Mapping and Analysis Group and its Education and Outreach Committee, and from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Office of Communication

“A lot of computer coding is needed to import data, like the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) and data collected in our research, into the video game engine to perform the tasks the game user is asking it to do,” Pessutti said. “The game has undergone a number of iterations and is still evolving.”

The current game usually lasts between three and five minutes, which allows for a number of students to participate in a short amount of time. It has been a big hit with students visiting the Howard Lab for the annual Open House; an estimated 3,000 visitors were on hand for the 2014 Open House on May 18. Students watched a large HD flat screen and used a PlayStation controller to explore the Hudson Canyon and other areas off the coast. The presentation environment is dark, and arranged to make visitors feel like they are in a submersible.

“I knew I was on to something when a young girl came up to me during the 2012 demonstration and asked if we were really underwater,” said Pessutti, who has added new features each year. “I began using data taken in the Hudson Canyon, where a number of Sandy Hook scientists have worked, and came up with the design for a virtual submersible that the user could control to explore areas offshore and see different species in these areas.”

Earlier this year, Pessutti presented the game to middle school students from the Hudson County School of Technology Explore 2000 program. “Although it has taken a lot of my personal time, seeing the reactions of the students at these demonstrations makes it all worthwhile.”

The current focus is to bring content closer to the actual research done at the James J. Howard Marine Sciences Lab,” Pessutti said. “It would be a nice introduction to the research we do, and show that we are on the cutting edge of developments in a number of areas.”

His ultimate goal, and that of the Education and Outreach Committee, is to have the game downloadable as an app for smart phones and tablets. Another idea in app development includes a virtual tour of the Howard Laboratory facilities at Sandy Hook, highlighting its history, research, people, and events. Other educational games are possibilities.

From a technical standpoint, Pessutti feels the NOAA Submarine Explorer game will be ready within a year, but he is well aware of the challenges and hurdles in bringing the game to its full potential as a downloadable app.

“There are a lot of possibilities and potential. I’m just moving forward one step at a time.”

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