January 14, 2010

Throwing learning a curve

Often, when I run into an old friend, they ask how my son is, and when I tell them he’s sixteen and taller than me they gasp and recall some thing he did when he was eleven. “Can you believe it’s been that long?”

Those of us who were around when Otronicon was a new idea are having much the same reaction. The baby is growing up and into a respectable citizen.

I first wrote about Otronicon in the Jan. 27, 2006 issue of Orlando Business Journal. Dr. Brian Tonner, then president of Orlando Science Center, told me, "The purpose of Otronicon is to examine the impact of digital electronics on culture."

But even then, Otronicon was about more than video games. Orlando has long been a center for military simulation, and the Army and Marine Corps have been participants in Otronicon from the start, along with Lockheed Martin’s simulation and training division.

This year, I told OSC President JoAnn Newman, in all sincerity, that the show keeps getting better every year. It’s true.

This year, one of the new additions is medical simulation. Otronicon has touched on this topic in the past, but this year Florida Hospital for Children has put together a roomful of displays, including a trainer for the da Vinci robotic surgery system.

I was able to try out the da Vinci Surgical System this evening at the Otronicon preview event. The robot is a massive thing with multiple arms -- a mechanical Shiva. The control mechanism is a massive thing with rounded edges, gaping eye sockets and a cavern containing the joystick-like controls.

The controls are a little touchy at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s very nimble. A tray of tiny modeling-clay cones and plastic rings sat on a table under the robotic arms. After only a minute or two -- once the company sales rep who was manning the display showed me the correct way to get my fingers into the grips -- I was able to move rings from one cone to another.

The company representative and a couple of doctors from the hospital explained that this kind of equipment allows for minimally invasive surgery, cutting recovery times by weeks and reducing or eliminating post-surgery problems.

A lady who came along after I finished wasn’t sure guests were allowed to use the machine. But I showed her how, and she gave it a go. But she accidentally pinched off the top of one of the clay cones. Her friend teased her -- “that would hurt” -- but I said, “That was an appendectomy. She meant to do that.”

Preview night is always fun. This year, more than ever. Because now, in addition to enjoying all the new things Otronicon has to offer, I can reminisce with others who’ve been around since back in the day about how far we’ve come.

Otronicon isn’t just about examining culture anymore. As Newman told the attendees tonight, at this event kids don’t just play games, they learn how games are made. “It’s not just about how we play,” she said, “it’s about how we learn.”

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