BACKGROUND: The classic 1970s video game Pong gets a makeover, thanks to applied math, physics and computer science. Plasma Pong is the brainchild of George Mason University student Stephen Taylor, who started writing code for a revamped version of Pong while bored during a winter break. He re-invented the visuals and added some interesting 2D physics simulations in the form of liquid plasmas. The game was an instant success: when Taylor first posted it online, the GMU server slowed to a crawl because of constant downloads. To date, the game had been downloaded over 50,000 times. Tech site Wired.com recently named Plasma Pong one of the top five independent online games.
HOW IT WORKS: A simple mouse click sends a jet of liquid across the "court" -- or, alternatively, creates a suction effect to draw the ball toward you. The bright colors constantly pulsate and change, occasionally sending particles flying around the screen. There's also a function that allows players to alter the viscosity of the "liquid." It is even possible to turn the game environment into a giant bowl of Jell-O. The complexity of fluid behavior makes Plasma Pong unpredictable much fun. The ball can easily get caught in eddies and currents. While the effects are difficult to precisely control, sometimes you can use this to your advantage. Firing a plasma into your opponent's playfield can create an eddy, enabling you to score.
INNOVATIONS: Taylorıs version of the game required him to create algorithms for complicated calculations like viscosity, gravity, vorticity, and other physical forces that affect the movement of a liquid. Plasmas are extremely difficult physical systems to model. There are so many variables, and the systems can change so rapidly in response to the tiniest variation in any one of them. It is extremely difficult to predict a fluid's behavior beyond the near-term, or effectively manipulate it to one's advantage. Taylor is working on making a multi-player version of the game to enable a GMU student to play someone in Tokyo, for example. He would also like to upgrade the graphics to three dimensions.
WHAT ARE PLASMAS: Plasmas are ionized gases that technically make up a fourth state of matter. "Ionization" occurs when there are one or more free electrons -- those not bound to an atom or molecule. In a plasma, the ionization gives would-be gases distinct fluid properties. And since the plasma is therefore electrically conductive, it can be manipulated by applying electromagnetic fields.
The American Association of Physics Teachers contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.