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Primordial soup meets the computer

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Step into the Boston Museum and you’ll be faced with a massive virtual undersea world: The Virtual FishTank. The 2 200 square foot exhibit lets visitors create and interact with their own virtual fish to discover new insights into how complex living systems work.

Using the latest in 3-D computer graphics and real-time interactive character simulation, this compelling aquatic environment “presents important new ideas about the way the world works, and how we think about it,” says Oliver Strimpel, the Museum’s executive director emeritus and a FishTank project co-leader. The fishtank shows how simple behavioral rules can produce complex and surprising results.

“One of the best ways to learn is by building things,” says Mitchel Resnick, professor of research in education at the MIT Media Lab and a FishTank project co-leader with Strimpel. “In this case, you build behaviors for your own artificial fish, then observe the patterns that emerge as your fish interacts with others in the giant tank. It’s an engaging learning experience.”Twelve large projection screens form windows into a spectacular 400-square-foot central tank, populated by nearly 100 brightly-coloured, cartoon-like fish. At three “Build-Your-Own-Fish” stations, visitors design behaviors for their fish, telling it how to react to other fish, human beings, food and water depth. They then launch their creations into the simulated world and see how they affect the overall behaviour of all the fish.

More than just the most complicated software development the Museum has ever undertaken, the Virtual FishTank incorporates major insights on artificial life and decentralised systems developed by the MIT Media Lab. The system tightly integrates design and technology to educate and entertain, providing an immersive learning experience for the people interacting with it. And, of course, offers yet another life-sized justification for the belief that computers really are Good Things.

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