Designing Healthy Bodies

29 Mar, 2006 By: Michelle Nicolson

Architects create video games that encourage children to make good lifestyle choices.

Architects and graphic designers from Archimage, an architectural design studio in Houston, Texas, are applying their creative skills to a venture that may seem far from the typical AEC project. Together with experts from the Children's Nutritional Research Center of Houston's Baylor College of Medicine, they are creating two video games with the ultimate goal of preventing obesity and type II diabetes in children.

The leap from stone and mortar to the television screen isn't as great as you might imagine at first, according to Richard Buday, Archimage's president and a member of Cadalyst's Editorial Advisory Board. His company found early on that embracing technology in the architectural arena also meant that it could use its expertise for computer graphics projects.

"Architects spend a lot of time in school building models and doing presentations," Buday says. "We are storytellers; we are world builders." Applying those same skills to an application like computer games is just another step, he says. "You have to learn the world of filmmaking, but it feels like an extension of what we are supposed to do."

Renaissance Resurgence
Buday refers to this concept as a Renaissance architectural mindset, and he likens his firm's embracing of different creative applications to the great masters of the era. "Michelangelo was a painter, a sculptor and an architect," he says. "It's getting back to our roots." Even modern architects look beyond the traditional building walls, he notes. "Frank Lloyd Wright not only designed the exteriors, but the interiors, the furnishings and the tapestries on the wall."

Indeed, the technology that Archimage uses to help create the video games will look familiar to AEC firms: Autodesk 3ds max, Google's SketchUp and Adobe Photoshop -- as well as special software for filmmaking and game development, including Apple Final Cut Pro, Leadwerks 3D World Studio, Ceebas Final Render, Microsoft Visual Studio, Torque Shader Engine, netMercs Codeweaver and Perforce.

"We use our architectural skills to think through complex problems, study and visualize alternatives and manage the process," Buday says. "Then we construct game worlds that integrate Baylor's diet and exercise intervention technology to the immersive environments."

Virtual Architecture
The two video games -- Nanoswarm: Invasion from Inner Space and Escape from Diab -- are funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Prototype versions of the games are scheduled for testing in the next few months. If they prove to produce positive behavior in children, funding will continue for two more years and result in retail versions of the games. The idea is to get children interested in the games for fun, yet inspire them to absorb some of the virtual experience into their daily lives.


Video games designed by architectural firm Archimage, Nanoswarm: Invasion from Inner Space (top) and Escape from Diab (bottom), are designed to help children learn how to make healthy choices to avoid diabetes and obesity.

Using a video game to modify behavior may seem like an odd pairing to some experts, Buday admits, since video games share some of the blame for the increased sedentary levels of children that can lead to obesity and diabetes. But much like the architect-game designer combination, there is a link that isn't obvious to some.

"Video games' rich immersive capabilities allow players to participate as characters role-playing inside a story," says Tom Baranowki, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. "That means players can learn through actual experience as we deliver positive messages." The games incorporate limits on the time children can play, and they also facilitate children to set diet and exercise goals in real life.

The goal is to create a virtual world that will appeal to children, yet encourage them to make healthier choices. As a result, Archimage's innovations may help children build their own bodies and minds for years to come.