How Many Engineers Does it Take to Launch a Rocket?

8 Jun, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

GlobalSpec's Brain Strainer game provides cerebral amusement

Whereas Google Earth lets you explore the world, The Brain Strainer, a new game from the technical search engine GlobalSpec, lets you launch a rocket into space -- or, to be more precise, into the great void beyond your browser's window. So how do you play? Using standard mechanical components, you assemble a machine that can generate enough energy in a virtual ball to hit the launch pad.

The game's addictive nature will probably boost GlobalSpec's traffic, as its makers hope, but it won't likely spawn a slew of plug-ins the way Google Earth has. At best, it might provide some engineers with a few minutes of distraction during coffee breaks. At worst, it might lead to a few missed deadlines, much in the same way Solitaire, Minesweeper and Pinball sometimes do. But the solutions that different players have come up with to solve the game's intriguing puzzle reveal something about how engineers think -- and they don't think alike.

Think Outside the Box; Think Beyond Basic Physics
To start, you grab a series of objects -- conveyers, ramps, blocks, bumpers or something else equally recognizable -- and position them on a grid plane. To launch the rocket, you need to generate a high score by having a metallic, wooden or rubber ball bounce and tumble inside your machine. With this aim, you might consider the trajectory of the ball, the impact of gravity, potential energy, inertia and other applicable forces. But that's straightforward thinking. As many experienced players have found out, a good scoring strategy is to create a mechanical environment that traps the ball within tight corners and keeps it circulating through its internal labyrinth, even though this results in the kind of overly complex machines nobody would intentionally build in real life.

GlobalSpec's BrainStrainer game invites users to create a device to launch a rocket. The longer the device keeps the ball bouncing around, the higher the score and the more successful the launch.

On Brain Strainer's "How to Play" page, GlobalSpec helpfully suggests, "The more objects you use -- and the more complex your invention -- the more points you score." On Sci4um, an online discussion board, a poster reacts: "Why on earth would you score more points for overcomplicating a device? Is this a joke? I take it the goal is to see how much of a Rube Goldberg monstrosity you can create." Goldberg, the cartoonist who liked to poke fun at absurd technological innovations by sketching highly complex devices for performing the simplest manual tasks, might have found artistic inspiration from the dozens of high-scoring user-built machines archived on Brain Strainer's "Master Machine Builders" section.

Rocket Science
Chris Chariton, vice-president of marketing services and product management for GlobalSpec, knows something about engineers: "They're not going to tolerate something that isn't accurate." Chariton acknowledges that, though nothing is physically inaccurate, a few liberties have to be taken for game play -- specifically because realistic physics reactions wouldn't be as much fun. But that doesn't mean Newton's Laws of Motion have been completely forgotten.

"Our goal was to come as close to reality as possible, while still allowing for an interesting and enjoyable game experience," Chariton says. "Throughout the development process, we had academic and engineering help to perfect the game, get the physics equations right and ensure that it would be both relevant and challenging to our audience."

Even though GlobalSpec has intended the game to be a branding tool, it may go where its developers have not initially anticipated it to go. "We haven't gone out and targeted [the non-engineers]," says Chariton. "But Detroit Science Center felt it's a great tool for physics and engineering teachers. We've had high school physics teachers request to use it. We've had many written requests."

Proceed at Your Own Risk
Chariton reports that "over 126,000 visitors [have visited] the game since December 2005 and 3,500 have forwarded the game and recommend it to someone else." One of those is Steve Bass, who writes the Tips and Tweaks column for PC World. He shares what he calls his "first paltry excuse for a machine" on his blog entry titled "Brain Strain Extraordinaire."

He admits, "I spent part of an afternoon lost in this challenging (and time wasting) site and wasn't able to get the rocket to move more than a few pixels." Nevertheless, he invites readers to test-drive his "really dreadful creation."

As it turns out, his readers need no prompting. One shoots back, "You only wasted an afternoon? When it was released as beta internal to GlobalSpec, many [people] on my team spent a lot more time than that. They claimed [they were] beta testing."

Another, who apparently belongs to the winners' circle, teases, "If you do well, the top of the rocket opens, as well as a door on the side, and a robotic arm plucks your ball into the rocket, and takes off." The same poster goes on to say, "They [GlobalSpec] also have Trebuchet Challenge, which is quite fun as well." And just as addictive, so let that serve as fair warning.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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