iWorlds reaches the final frontier
May 23, 2007
To boldly go where no one has gone before, began with a teacher in Pleasant Grove and was furthered by a Parkite.
In 1990, Victor Williamson wanted to inspire his kids in math and science. He came to school one day with poster boards and an overhead projector and took his students on an adventurous trip through the solar system and beyond.
Williamson soon discovered his simulation was an effective way to educate. Now, kids from all over travel to Utah County to be involved in Williamson’s Space Camp that uses computers instead of overhead projectors.
Wesley Smith, a former land developer who moved to Park City three years ago, observed the power of the program earlier this year.
"Our kids started getting invited to these birthday things to this space camp and they kept saying it was better than Disneyland," Smith said.
Last January, Smith observed what Williams had created.
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"I was so taken by the magic that this guy created," Williams said. "A week later, we joined forces and I pulled in another finance guy."
Smith wanted to ramp up what Williams started. He opened iWorlds Foundation three weeks ago in Muray using higher technology and improved sets to create the ultimate illusion of being inside a space ship.
"They had a metallic floor and walls and it made you feel like you are in a ship," said Phill Vernon, a 12-year-old who participated in two simulations last week.
The simulation adventures at iWorlds takes one on a space quest. Vernon was on the ship Voyager that discovered a planet being sucked into a black hole. Voyager’s mission was to rescue the remaining survivors.
"It was really cool," Vernon said. "It was fun because it was exciting, and tough because our ship was beat up. We ended up getting all of them. There were 8,000 or 7,000 (survivors).
Each crew member has a job to do from being a captain to a maintenance guy. Vernon was the Voyager’s captain, which helped him realize the importance of strong leadership.
"It is a great way to know how to multi-task," Vernon said. "I learned a lot of leadership and decision making. There was quick-thinking and math involved. The people really needed to know how to do their job and in what order, there was a lot of problem solving and quick thinking."
Vernon said it was a better way to learn math and other skills.
"This is a lot of working in the job, this is the kind of stuff you are normally doing," Vernon said.
"Part of the magic is, we enroll our crew members in an epic struggle where they play a heroic role in that struggle," Smith said. "They like that epic journey. They are asked to participate in this moral battle between good and evil. It resonates at that basic level."
All of the simulations are that way. In the Voyager story, Smith said the participants have to decide whether to save various classes of people first such as artists and writers that will carry on the history of the planet.
"Sometimes, they die on the planet," Smith said. "Usually the decisions are a dilemma. It’s not all happy endings. For the older kids, we post some really tough ethical challenges for them. That’s why the kids like it and sometimes we underestimate them. This experience is so bizarre; you can’t really explain it until you see it."
One mission involves freeing slaves then confronting bounty hunters who demand a return of their property or else. The crew has to quickly come up with a solution.
"A fourth of the kids come up with the British solution," Smith said. "Through their wits and negotiating skills, they buy the slaves and set them free, that’s what the British solution was to their slavery problem."
Smith said there are endings where they fight the bounty hunters or they just give up the slaves.
"It’s so fully immersive," Smith said. "These things are full sets, you go to the props and they forget where they are. They actually think they are flying through space. You see a group of kids being real obnoxious getting into brawls and then at the end of the mission, giving each other a victory hug."
iWorlds is not just for kids, however. There are programs for adults to use in business training, education and entertainment. The simulations can run from two to 24 hours depending on the mission, and can be used to facilitate teamwork, communications, behavioral assessments, information management, strategic decision-making and leadership. iWorlds is currently working on a program that would simulate stopping a terrorist threat to go along with the space programs.
The simulations are played similar to a video role-playing game.
"The participants can carry the story in any way they want," Smith said. "The technology provides for a dynamic activity."
The java-based platform is a scripted scenario that can be changed in real time depending on the reactions of the crew members.
"That gives us functionality for grown ups and kids," Smith said. "We can create it on the fly. That’s what’s fundamentally different than most simulations."
iWorlds is part non-profit and profit. Everything involving students and field trips are non profit work and Smith is still looking for sponsors to help.Currently, iWorlds has two simulators. Its goal is to create four in Utah and then expand to other states. Smith is still looking for more investors as well to help the expansion.
"We want to make sure it’s available for everyone. We want to get corporate sponsors for those kids so anyone who wants to experience it can," Smith said.
"If this goes well, if we can launch these centers around the country, it will literally shift the way kids are educated and entertained and the way corporations are trained," he added.
iWorlds is located at 5425 South Vine St. in Murray. For more information, call (435) 608-1357 or log on to http://www.iworlds.com.