SciTech Now Episode 529

In this episode of SciTech Now, discovering the craft of video game storytelling, NASA’s dying robot and the impact of 3D printing on medical devices.



Coming up, discovering the craft of video game storytelling.

When I dream, I just dream of crazy stuff.

So then, I kind of, like, just alter some stuff and turn it into stories.

I'm making a zombie game.

I want to do, like, kind of, like, an Internet apocalypse game.

NASA's dying robot.

This rover has given us one of the best views ever of planet Mars, up close and personal.

The impact of 3-D printing on medical devices.

Between scanning, cloud-based software, we're seeing a really rapid adoption in the orthopedic and prosthetic market.

Ultra-accessible technology.

We're at a point in society where everybody has different abilities, and we have to make sure that everybody in society has the same opportunity.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

In Houston, Texas, a nonprofit program called Writers in the Schools is teaching elementary students how to tell stories and build video games.

This convergence of language arts and digital design is a way for children to explore the possibilities of writing and technology together.

Let's go inside the KIPP Academy West classroom.

All right.

Here's the deal.

When you hear the word hero or heroine, what are the first five words that pop into your head?

As a writer, what does it feel like teaching the elements of storytelling...


...through creating video games?

There's just so much commonality.

You know, first of all, thinking of the idea of the quest by developing the game and thinking about the world, but in a game, they can translate that into story.

What did you write?

Somebody tell me.

Raise your hand.

Tell me.

What did you write?


I put insane, brave, resourceful, smart and cool.

I like insane.


If they have do something that, like, kills them just to, like, save other people, like, like, they would do it.

And, you know, you brought up a really good point about heroes and sacrifice, and I think that's a really interesting point, that a hero often is the person that has the most change in a story, and a hero is often the person who sacrifices the most.

Very good.

When you're coming up with a lesson plan...

Mm-hmm. create this arc for the students...


...this learning arc...

Mm-hmm. do you break down, step-by-step, how they build this video game?

It's, like, 21st-century digital storytelling.

Here are the components of a good game.

Here are the components of a good story.

Right now, we're working more with sort of the thinking behind their games.

When I dream, I just dream of crazy stuff.

So then, I kind of, like, just alter some stuff and turn it into stories.

I'm making a zombie game.

I want to do, like, kind of, like, an Internet apocalypse game.

My game is, like, an apocalyptic kind of world.

If you're writing a story, you can, like, just write anything you like, but if you're coding it, like, you have to do some special effects and editing.

I think you're going to be in this class for 24 weeks, right?

So that's a long time you have to make your game.

Is it enough time to do what you want?

I think so.

I'm going to have to learn how to make some stuff under pressure.

I'll be taking them through... In the next few lessons, we're going to be looking at different components of the arc of a story, but also the arc of the game play.

Like, I'm going to be really interested as we go, especially with these particular two classes.

Since they are so into it, I'm going to be very interested to see how these develop.

We've been doing this since September, and you've been doing some writing.

You've been doing some gaming.

Now, everybody is starting to create their own games.

This background is really interesting.

Can you tell us about the background?

I chose this because it sort of looks like a city.

He got warped into a parallel universe.

Like, so he can change his, like, avatar and, like, abilities.

What students and games really stood out to you over this whole process?

Andy in sixth grade, if he actually were to continue beyond this class, I think he'll probably end up with a novel.

Start off in this basement where you have no memories, and he's kind of just, like, listening to this voice that talks to him.

So the purpose of the game is that he has to find out who he is and what has happened.

So he goes through all these things.

The last level talks about the backstory, how it's all a project, really, trying to make an atomic war to make, like, the apocalypse happen, and they're trying to make sure no human will survive.

So they're testing all these humans, and he's test subject zero zero nine.

I can write a story.

I could probably learn how to build a game, but I don't... I think the way that you're merging the two is kind of incredible.

Did you have to learn how to do that in this class, or did you know how to do that before?

I'm really bad at writing, which has helped me, like, helped me on the story-making part, on how to show emotion and, like, characteristics of games.

That's already...Like, since a kid, I've always been playing games, getting ideas of what to do in games, so it was kind of a 50-50 from home and here.

Let me ask a question.

Hey, guys.

Let me ask a question.

How many people, right now, want to play Andy's game?

This class itself is still sort of experimental.

Is there anything that you've learned from this class's experience?

Next time, what I'm going to do is have them take their storyboard for their story and their storyboard for their game and kind of look at places where there's overlap and then maybe look at places where there can't be overlap, but looking at the creative link between the two.

I think that's probably where I will focus more next time to make that more evident for the kids so that they can start thinking about different ways narrative plays out.

♪♪ ♪♪

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who's written for and

Throughout his career, he's watched humans and robots launch into space, flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse and toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor.

He joins us now to discuss a NASA robot on planet Mars whose days are numbered.

What is the robot?

What is the rover, so to speak, and what's happening to it?

So this is the Opportunity rover.

It's a Mars Exploration Rover, or MER.

That's what NASA calls it, super-technical language.

This is a solar-powered rover, about the size of a small car, and it's been roving the planet.

I think it's racked up more than a marathon's worth of miles since 2004 or 2005.

So this rover has given us one of the best views ever of planet Mars, up close and personal, and it has a twin called Spirit.

Spirit passed away, or stopped responding, as NASA kind of likes to put it, around 2011, 2012, I believe.

So it's been on its own.

These rovers were supposed to last, I think, 90 days, and it's been...

Oh, wow.

It's been, you know...


It's been years, 13, 14, 15 years.

So they've lasted for a very long time.

They've given us tons of valuable insights into the red planet, in a specific region of Mars near the equator.

The problem is Mars likes to stir up dust storms every 2 years or so, and sometimes those dust storms go global.

You get a little dust rising up here, and that leads to some other dust rising up there, and before you know it, the whole planet is enshrouded in dust, and it's almost, like... You can't see anything.

Kind of whiteout conditions, but dust-out conditions.


So that means that, what, the dust sits on top of the solar panels, and that's the juice that the solar panels are giving to the battery, and...


I mean, it sounds... It's pretty straightforward, but there's also some complexity here.

When the dust storms start, that's a problem, but the rovers will generally have their batteries, like, charged up, and they go into sort of a hibernation mode.

They hunker down...

And wait out the storm.

...and try to wait it out.

But sometimes these global dust storms will last a month or two, but the one that has happened this year has been the longest and sort of worst that NASA has ever seen in their study of Mars.

So this is a bad one, and it's been so bad that they posted these simulated images of what the Sun looks like.


And the Sun, by the way, is about half as... Sunlight is about half as strong at Mars as it is at Earth.

They posted simulated images, and it's almost like you can't even see the Sun.

Like, it's that bad.

So the rover only has so much power.

The other problem is that Mars is super cold.

Electronics do not like to be cold, especially when they get, you know, tens or dozens of degrees below zero.


Circuits can start snapping, and then you lose a rover.

Batteries can brown out.

They just go on the fritz if you get your energy too low, and you're not pushing current through them.

So these dust storms are bad for that reason, and then there's the aftermath.

All the dust falls out of the atmosphere, and then it lands on the solar panels.

There's no windshield wipers on Opportunity.

And there's no one there that could just kind of wipe it off.


There's no astronaut that says, 'Oh, I got you. I got you, Oppy.

I'll wipe off your panels.'

I mean, I'm sure the team would love to have somebody there to do that, but that's not the case.

So you have to just sit and wait for what is basically a little mini tornado called a dust devil to sweep on by one of the rovers and blast off all the dust so that they can start... It's a total game of solar power collection and consumption.


So if this Opportunity rover stops responding, what's plan B?

I mean, we're not sending them every 2 months.

This was an enormous effort, took millions of dollars, tons of people, huge amounts of time to plan a mission like this.

Yeah, hundreds of millions of dollars and years of effort.

So a couple of things are important here to understand.

One is that, again, this rover has lasted more than a decade beyond its sort of warranty.

Like, NASA is just pleased as punch that this rover is still kicking and still...

And it gave us back a lot of amazing...


It's drilled into things.

It's looked behind at its tracks and seen these, you know, perchlorate things, and it's found other evidence of, like, the history of the geology of Mars and things that suggest, yeah, there's a ton of water here.

There were oceans here, and now they're all gone.

So where did they go?

And it's lead to this whole cascade of amazing discoveries about the planet and its history.

So, but...You know, fast-forward to 2018, again, we're way past the expiration date.

NASA is going to do its best.

They're...The rover has been hunkering down for months.

The dust storm is gone, but it's not phoning home.


That doesn't mean it's dead, but because the hardware is so old and because the mission is so overextended, as it were, like, they are expecting it not to wake up at this point, and, in fact, right now, they are turning off their active search for signals from Opportunity.

They're going to occasionally check in every month or so to see if maybe it's still alive.


But, I mean, we're going into a Martian winter.

The sunlight is getting weaker.

The hopes aren't very good...

Yeah. this point.

So, you know, nobody's said it's dead yet, and they probably won't say that for a year or two of no response, but that's where we're going.

Are there other rovers there that are still performing their missions?


So there is a car-sized rover with a nuclear power supply on it called Curiosity.

That is climbing a mountain and, you know, studying billions of years of geology, layer by layer.

It's called Mount Sharp, and it's drilling into things.

It's blasting stuff with lasers.

It's good.

It's like, 'I don't care about dust storms because I have my nuclear power supply.

I don't have to worry about solar energy.'

And in fact, they're about to launch another one of these in 2020.

It's almost identical, but this rover will have special equipment to possibly detect signs of past or present microbial life.


And that is huge.

NASA has really dialed up this mission of astrobiology, and they're going to use the Mars 2020 rover to make the first really solid punch at this since the Viking landers, which had a whole, you know, possible detection that was botched, maybe.

Like, we're not sure.

Like, the jury is still out on that, but the Mars 2020 rover is going to land.

It's going to have a nuclear power supply too, and it's going to join Curiosity in sort of, like, a tag-team effort to figure out what the heck is going on on Mars.

Was there life there?

Is there life there?

And maybe even help send a sample of this stuff back to Earth by preparing it for a future spacecraft to come and get it.

All right.

Dave Mosher.

Thanks for joining us.

Thanks for having me.

3-D printing is changing the production landscape for prosthetics and other medical devices.

Joining us via Google Hangout is Lee Dockstader from Hewlett-Packard's 3-D printing division to discuss digital solutions in the manufacturing of medical equipment for patients.

Thanks for joining us.

So I've got this giant leg here.

What part of this is 3-D printed?

So the black plastic part before it attaches to the post.

And is this a leap forward?

I mean, we've had customized legs for a while now, right?

Right, but the way they actually have to make the socket... They have to take a plaster cast.

They have to make a male.

Then, they have to thermoform something over it.

Then, they have to do a test fit.

Then, they have to do another casting.

I mean, it is quite labor intensive, and it's a real craftsman-type technique as opposed to taking the, you know, your $500 hand scanner.

Scan it.

Put it on a computer, and you get it right the first time.

And that information goes where, into the cloud?


So what's interesting about ProsFit's business model is it's all cloud-based.

So you pay a small subscription fee a month and then the cost of the socket.

It's got kind of their click fee built in.

It's what enables that do is you're not facing $50, $100,000 in up-front capital costs for plaster machines, CNC machines, special software.

It really lowers the barrier to entry.

It also means that you've got multiple printers around the world.

There's not a bottleneck at one particular spot where you have to go get this leg made.

Right, and it's competitive.

It's not, you know, in-house only.

You can source from multiple, get better pricing.

The other... One of the other examples I have here is... It's a green insole.

It looks...ME3D.

It's something that I guess you can pick pick up in stores today.

This bottom gray part, it's got kind of a little bit of a ribbing to it.

What's...Is this 3-D printed?

That plastic part around the bottom is 3-D printed.

The pad on the top is not.

It's a standard foam topper, but that is actually captured by walking on a pressure plate and having your feet scanned in 3-D, and the pressure plate actually captures your gait.

It's got thousands of sensors in it, and as you walk on it, it can tell whether you walk like a duck.

Are you pigeon-toed?

And then, it will actually recommend a shoe, or it will recommend that you have insoles if you've got a mild to moderate foot condition.

Then, there's a medical version of that.

I think you've got one of those there too.


I do.

So if you have a mild to moderate foot condition, you can go to a podiatrist or orthopedic technician, walk on the same mats, but they can actually have more control over corrective features, or, like, if you have diabetes, and you've got an ulcer, they can put a hole in the bottom all digitally.

So this all...They both use the same math model of an anatomical foot, and then they generate from your gait, not just the shape of your foot -- it's actually how you walk -- the right insole.

So it's not just, you know, the old-fashioned kind of plastic orthotic heel.

This is literally down to your exact foot.


So your left foot and right foot are likely to be a little different from one another.


But that's going to... And that's...Basically, the computer has figured out exactly what you need to get a proper gait.


Yeah, it's based on math and 20 years of experience of the folks that do the software.

Is there... And put this in perspective.

I mean, where is 3-D printing, especially in the medical space, now?

I mean, you've been up and kind of running in this division for a couple of years, but where do you see it going?

Well, what's really interesting is it's kind of a convergence of a bunch of technologies.

Actually, medical 3-D printing has been around for 20 years, orthodontics, hearing aids, all sorts of things, not so much in prosthetic and orthopedics just because of the cost and the barrier to entry.

But the convergence of getting, you know, a $500 scanner...


...and the software to go with it and the cloud, and then the driving the part price down using the HP technology, we're seeing a pretty rapid growth right now.

Speaking of parts, how much is it going to cost over time?

I mean, it's usually the ink that costs more than the printers.

The stuff that's coming out of these printers, how expensive is it?

And how conscious of that are you?

Well, actually, when I rejoined HP, I asked the same question, and they said, 'No.

We're actually trying to drive the part cost down, and we've got an open materials platform.'

I go, 'What? HP, the people that sell $30 inkjet cartridges, you're driving the material costs down?'

He says, 'Yeah.

We're one of the world's biggest plastics consumers.

We know if you're going to get into manufacturing, it's all about the part costs, and part cost is part [ Speaks indistinctly ] the materials, also how fast the machine is and how much you can amortize that over the parts.'

And it turns out between scanning, cloud-based software, the MJF technology, that's all converging, and we're seeing a really rapid adoption in the orthopedic and prosthetic market.

All right.

Lee Dockstader of HP joining us via Google Hangout, thanks so much.


Interstellar space is the space between the stars, but that doesn't mean that all space is interstellar.

It's a bit more complicated than that.

At the center of the solar system is our very own star, the Sun.

That has eight planets orbiting around it, including our own, and the Sun is also constantly spewing out a stream of high-energy particles, which we call the solar wind.

This wind forms a giant bubble around our entire solar system.

Other stars have similar shells around them.

Interstellar space begins at the edge of those star bubbles, which are much bigger than these bubbles.

Interstellar space is hot and cold at the same time.

The particles are moving really fast.

Fast-moving particles means high temperatures, but get this: You can still freeze to death.

The particles are so spread out that they're not very good at transferring heat to your body.

Inside the solar system, all of the wind comes from the Sun, and the Sun's bubble actually blocks out the wind from other stars.

But out in interstellar space, there's wind blowing from many different stars, and it all swirls together.

It's a glorious mix of particles, energy and magnetic fields, totally unlike the kind of environment we experience on Earth.

In the 1970s, NASA launched two space probes that are now speeding through interstellar space, beyond the bubble of our solar system.

After a tour of our neighbor planets, Voyager I and Voyager II are now the first human-made objects on an interstellar adventure.

Another out-of-this-world thing about interstellar space is that each of the Voyagers is carrying a golden record on its journey, with songs, sounds and greetings from our home on planet Earth.

So maybe, one day, they'll tell the story of our world to extraterrestrials.

It's pretty cool that we humans now have a message in a bottle all the way out there in interstellar space.

Thanks for joining us with five things about interstellar space, and tune in to 'NASA Science Live' for more about interstellar space.

♪♪ ♪♪

A theme park in San Antonio, Texas, is the world's first where special-needs children have a chance to interact with video and educational games.

The completely wheelchair- accessible park features more than 25 elements, including rides, playgrounds and other colorful attractions.

Take a look.

Ultra technology, ultra-accessible technology, is important because we're at a point in society where everybody has different abilities, and we have to make sure that everybody in society has the same opportunity, and ultra-accessible equipment, ultra-accessible thinking, I think, is the important part about this in moving forward so that literally everybody can participate.


Ooh, nice!

You got that?


Way to go, got the goal!

One of the employees at Microsoft has a differently abled child, comes here all the time, loves what we do, loves the interaction that they have as an entire family.

So he brought it upon himself to work through Microsoft to get it to the point where other people had heard.

They had similar experiences and were able to visit and took it to the next level.

Of course, the only thing these kids are focused on is leveling up their games, and it means everything to them to use adaptive technology, like foot pedals, as a means of interacting.

And the controller, the adaptive controller, is huge because not all of our guests have the dexterity to utilize their hands.

Some of our guests don't have hands.

So if they have a stub or a prosthetic or... You know, Microsoft has thought about that.

How long have you been playing this game?

Not too long.

I just got on it.

The technology, because of it's size and interactivity, helps the kids gain confidence in their dexterity and general abilities.

What do you like about the driving game?

Well, I can see the screen better, and it's... And it helps me, like, just see it better.

And because it suits them better, grown-ups are sometimes stymied by what the kids are doing.

I couldn't tell you how to play that game.

Some of the kids wanted me to play it.

I crashed that car about 16 times.

Where do you want to go on a road trip?

Probably somewhere pretty far.

And while they're playing, notice that sometimes the sound is lower.

The sensory experience for some of the children is important because what sounds fine to you is too loud for their senses.

Do you like it better with sound or without sound?

Probably without sound so it doesn't hurt my ears.

Oh, okay.

That makes sense.

And you can probably concentrate more without sound, right?


As a preview as to what's coming next here at Morgan's Wonderland, I'm in the weather station, which will be upgraded with even more ultra-accessible technology.

Now, when you draw with your finger, what are you doing there with your finger?

I press it.

You know, technology is important because we're on our phones.

We're on our iPads.

We're on our laptops.

Technology is mobile, and it keeps progressing.

Ultra technology, ultra-accessible technology, is important because we're at a point in society where everybody has different abilities, and we have to make sure that everybody in society has the same opportunity.

Morgan's Wonderland is in its ninth season and has welcomed more than one million guests from every state and 73 countries.

There are 25 wheelchair- accessible things to do, like rides and playscapes.

I look forward to all of the rest of the ideas that they have for Sensory Village so that we can upgrade that experience for our guests, so we can continue to put smiles on everybody's face that visits.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology and innovation, visit our website.

Check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪