SMAAASH: VR Entertainment Review

On Thursday, my friends and I went to check out the newly opened virtual reality games and arcade center at the Mall of America, SMAAASH. While many might be fooled by my studious outlook, I am actually a huge fan of arcade games. I have spent many hours in my teenage years in arcade centers and have always enjoyed new game stimulations. So, I was very excited about the chance to check out this new experience.

SMAAASH is an interactive gaming facility that is built around virtual reality (VR) technologies. Opened on Dec. 20, 2016 at the Mall of America, SMAAASH offers America’s first VR-driven “adrenaline arena,” coupled with sports, music, and bar dining experiences.

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When walked into the arcade arena, I was immediately drawn to the flashy LEDs and screens set up to get visitors registered for their play. My friends and I got an all-access pass that gives us unlimited access to all games and one round of Sky Karting (go kart). Main attractions include Finger Coaster, Exterminator, Vertigo, Art of Attack, X1 Simulator, Haunted Hospital, Hot Shot, Zombie Outbreak, and three sports based challenges namely Super Keeper (soccer), What the Puck (ice hockey), and Extreme Takedown Challenge (football). There is also a “smart arcade” with classics like race cars, skiing, and basketball ring toss, and other screen based games. You can read all game descriptions here.

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Having studied VR and wearable technologies since 2015, my colleagues at UMN and I have been intrigued by the potentials of VR in gaming and social engagement. SMAAASH embodies a combination of both. While back in our home lab there’s one set of HTC Vive for individual research and user simulation, SMAAASH offers interactive and communal participation in VR experiences. These experiences are made possible mainly by Oculus and Vive technologies. What’s interesting to me is how the player/user can be a part of creating their VR experience, and sharing it with their friends.

For instance, at Finger Coaster, players can design their own roller coaster tracks and bring up to four friends to share the ride they have invented.

^ This is one of my most favorite.

Another highlight at SMAAASH is the Vertigo experience. I’d say that simulation is indeed not for the faint hearted. Through the VR headset, the player is lifted to about 50 feet above ground to a single plank, with the mission to save a kitten at the middle of the narrow walkway. I almost chickened out of this particular simulation (although I actually did with the zombies), I am glad that I tried–and succeeded in saving the poor kitty–because it was something I would never have done in real life.

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VR does trick the mind into believing the simulation to be reality. What the Vertigo experience teaches me is that there are truly many ways VR can be used to simulate scenarios that are hard to create in reality, but might be useful in shaping or changing one’s perspective.

We ended up spending about 2.5 hours there, not including the time in the dining space (the wings are delicious, by the way). I think SMAAASH could be a great group trip for those who don’t mind spending a little more on the tickets that traditional entertainment. The ticket prices at the Mall are:

  • $5 per Active and Virtual Reality Game; $1 per Arcade Game, or
  • All Active & Virtual Reality Games: $28 for once; $35 Unlimited, or
  • All Arcade, Active & Virtual Reality Games: $34 for once; $40 Unlimited

I give this new arcade a 4 out of 5 stars for its innovative approach to social gaming. I reserve one star for when it lowers its ticket prices and for when the players can be even more involved in designing their own VR experience.

MH370 Tragedy: A Social Media Buzz and Fuzz

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This article originally appeared in St. Cloud Times on Monday, April 14, 2014.

“What really happened? Where is the plane? What is your government doing about it?”

As a native of Malaysia, these are the questions I get bombarded with almost anywhere I go since the MH370 tragedy broke March 8.

Because I am not residing in Malaysia and have received only secondhand news, I avoid the topic each time someone asks about the tragic incident, my opinions on conspiracy theories, and our government’s responses to the event.

Whenever necessary, I choose not to speak about the missing plane conundrum. Instead, I criticize how this incident has become a global sensation, especially through social media, by attracting international attention and sparkling lots of superfluous — and rather inaccurate — “expert” knowledge on the subject matter.

Those who have been in the loop should be quite familiar with the narrative about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370: The plane took off March 8 from Kuala Lumpur International Airport heading for Beijing. At about 1:22 a.m., Vietnamese air traffic control noticed they had lost contact with MH370. The Boeing 777 carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew has not been seen or heard from since.

During the past month, international support was expanded from the U.S. to Australia, rallying to gather facts and hints that will help search missions. Along with that came thousands of armchair critics and self-proclaimed experts of aviation, many firing gibberish and offering ridiculous explainations.

Social media commentator Ren Yi told The Associated Press social media has been augmenting a general sense of negativity toward Malaysia by giving voice to rumors, doubts, speculations and paranoia, while seeming to offer family members false hope.

Some claimed aliens were involved while others believed the Bermuda Triangle had a twin sister in the Gulf of Thailand. As for conspiracy theorists, most point to the possibilities of hijacking, terrorist attack and theft.

According to AP reports, accounts forwarded on Chinese social media have it that the plane is being held hostage in Central Asia, that Malaysia shot it down because of possible hijackers wanted to crash into the capital city’s twin towers, or that the U.S. diverted it to a remote island to prevent secret information from reaching China.

Even within the Malaysian circle — my friends and families in my social networks — social commentaries seemed to focus only on the incompetence of our leaders. Some of them took the opportunity to frame the incident as a politically motivated catastrophe.

Regardless of what we believe to be true, many social media users have yet to learn to distinguish facts from fiction. Many people simply take quick looks at news stories from unknown sources and distribute them obnoxiously within their own networks. Anything marked with “#MH370” was deemed newsworthy by them and shared and re-shared virally.

Of course, it doesn’t help when a major news channel such as CNN keeps sensationalizing the story with all kinds of specialist perspectives and postulations. Most of my friends won’t question the accuracy of information if it comes from a U.S. network like CNN. And with the seductive headlines and savvy presentations about the flight disaster put together by these major networks, they make the information even more believable and encourage audience to disseminate them.

The result for uninformed users is they are deceived by misinformation. Families were given false hope. Most Malaysians were misrepresented as incapable individuals. Cynicism and distrust are filling airwaves, and they are not helpful to the collaborative search.

Although it’s understandable for people to get emotional when a disaster happens, we should be cautious about what we do or say, online and offline. Words are powerful. Given the MH370 tragedy, we don’t need further nuisances. Instead, we should remain concerned and act with empathy. Don’t spread any more hearsay. Focus on proven facts.

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Students Talk Technology: Tech Tools for College Education

Many studies have revealed that college students today arrive on their campuses with high literacy in the latest technology and mobile devices. It is not uncommon to see students walking around with their beat earphones, texting while waiting in the hallway, and snapchatting with their friends in the dining hall. Yet, in the sea of options, what educational technologies are students using to help them with their studies? In the video above, I interviewed a trio of undergraduate students at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) to quiz them on their favorite tech tools and innovations they hope to see in the future.

All that tech has caused something of a dependency, too. The following infographic reviews responses from SCSU students about their technology-using habits — ultimately showing a trend that leads to a techno-reliant generation.

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Ideas/comments? Add your two cents to the comment section below!

Is There a Robot in This Class? On Writing & AES

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This presentation was delivered at the 2014 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Indianapolis, IN, March 24, 2014.

Automated essay scoring (AES) is the use of specialized computer programs to assign grades to essays written in an educational setting. It is a method of educational assessment and an application of natural language processing. Its objective is to classify a large set of textual entities into a small number of discrete categories, corresponding to the possible grades—for example, the numbers 1 to 6. Therefore, it can be considered a problem of statistical classification (Wikipedia, “Automated essay scoring”).

As we know, the conversation on machine grading isn’t new. It began in 1962 with Walter Reitman’s thoughts on the possibility of machine grading at a conference on needed research of teaching English. Most historical summaries of AES trace the origins of the field to the work of Ellis Batten Page. In 1966, Page argued for the possibility of scoring essays by computer, and in 1968 he published his successful work with a program called Project Essay Grade (PEG).

Multiple-choice exams have, of course, been graded by machine for a long time, but essays are another matter. When it comes to English composition, the question of whether computer programs can reliably assess student work remains sticky. Can a computer program accurately capture the depth, beauty, structure, relevance, creativity, etc., of an essay?

Douglas Hesse writes that when it comes to the resulting problems of cost and frustration associated with traditional writing assessment, he worries more about how computer grading will negatively impact “the transferability of skills and about the cost to how students perceive writing (and the resultant cost to human culture).”

Amid the pressure many composition teachers and their institutions face in regards to the possible adoption of computer-grading programs for assessing student writing, many teachers have strong opinions – most of them disagree with the employment of grading machine in their classroom. In this pressing time, I think it is important for teachers, as well as graduate students, to understand the impact on pedagogy, process, and product that grading machines may have if they replace human readers. Hence, by providing an overview on the appeals of computer grading programs and the ongoing debates around the adoption of automated essay scoring software for assessing writing, this presentation aims to illustrate how mechanized evaluation of writing may mechanize pedagogy as well as the process to create a written, machine-directed product. I will also offer suggestions for writing instructors in handling the adoption of essay-grading programs in their classrooms.

Read the full conference paper here.

View the conference presentation here.