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Gaming professor serious about research


Jan. 29, 2011 at midnight
Updated Jan. 28, 2011 at 7:29 p.m.

Yong Yang, a 24- year-old University of Houston-Victoria student, clicks through a video game he designed. Assistant professor Alireza Tavakkoli, who taught Yang, hopes to use simulations, like those created in the program, to research diseases and develop technology for disabled people.

A space-like battle machine hovers above sands of a foreign planet.

It stops, lines up artillery and fires.

Fire blobs slash into a target until it explodes on 24-year-old Yong Yang's computer screen.

"I think before this class, I only know how to play games," he said, as he clicked his way through a self-designed video game.

Yang came from China to the University of Houston-Victoria to study digital gaming and simulation, an academia that lured in about 20 UHV creative techies like himself this semester.

"You just take the imagination to the next level," said Alireza Tavakkoli, Ph.D., the digital gaming and simulation program director who taught Yang. "You can create your own world."

The gaming program, Unreal Engine, was used to design high-end games like Halo, and can create multiple landscapes, tools, ammo or a roomful of lava.

But Tavakkoli's ambitions are a little more, well, serious. Tavakkoli's research focus is artificial intelligence, and rather than creating alter universes for play, he uses the program to test security and hopes to research bioinformatics.

Tavakkoli designed fake video surveillance scenes using the the program to show break-ins and dangerous events. The scenes showed multiple camera views contained on one computer monitor, just like in a video surveillance booth. When human guards monitored the activity, Tavakkoli found the humans were hugely inefficient without the help of a computer to light up where the break-ins were happening.

"We saw that the performance was very poor, especially on the nine camera cases and also in the case that there were two or more events happening on multiple screens," he said. "Whenever the screens highlighted humans, instead of watching everything, they would get directed to that screen."

Tavakkoli developed a complicated algorithm for the project that essentially tells the future. It breaks down how patterns evolve and can predict what will happen seconds before an action occurs.

Tavakkoli applied for a $1 million National Science Foundation grant this month to fund in-depth research and hopes to apply the same algorithm to finding a cure for diseases. The idea is to use simulated DNA patterns and use artificial intelligence to recognize the disease patterns in them.

"The program here is watching the patterns of humans interacting with the world," he said. "In terms of diseases, we have similar patterns."

In the meantime, he'll continue teaching students like Yang, who plans to get a doctorate in computer science and jump into the highly competitive gaming industry.

"The gaming industry is a job where you can have fun all the time," Yang said. "And it's very challenging."



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