Untangled: normal people finding big solutions
Red circuitry floods the screen screaming “HELP! HELP! HELP!” Violations plea to be untangled in the garbled mess of power conduits. With the careful flick of the wrist, the player tactically rearranges the perfect composition of cells until the crimson dies down and all that remains is the tranquil onset of a green job well done.
Electrical engineers face challenges of figuring out how to fit electrical components in portable devices. Untangled is a strategic computer game based on electrical engineering concepts, and the UNT electrical engineering program has taken a placement problem from integrated circuit design and encapsulated it into a game.
Professor Gayatri Mehta leads the team, crowdsourcing Untangled to make it broadly accessible with the goal of discovering creative mapping algorithms by looking at the kind of strategies players use.
She wants to develop more efficient algorithms that will help engineers explore the design space of reconfigurable architectures in a better way, which would help in the advancement of low-power portable electronics.
“Players do not need an engineering background to play Untangled,” Mehta said. “It has the potential to increase interest in STEM. Anyone can play. The goal is to engage broader audience.”
The idea of Untangled began when Mehta was following a 3-D protein folding game called “Folded.” She asked herself how she could do something similar with her own research. She proposed the idea to the National Science Foundation, who funded Untangled. Due to Untangled’s success, Untangled 2 was funded as well. Moving with the momentum, her third proposal for Untangled 3 is currently being funded by the NSF.
Untangled has more than 12,000 solutions generated by players all over the world. Launched in 2012, it has won international competitions, winning awards such as top 10 in the gaming categories and people’s choice awards.
When Untangled was first released, it intentionally lacked a real solution. The team wanted to gauge player scores and build a “gallery of solutions” players created. After the first competition, the development team posted the gallery and challenged players to beat those top scores.
“I would like to see how people use these out-of-the-box approaches and solve this problem,” Mehta said.
The newest game in the series, Untangled 3, has a better interface and unique design where the same problem is used on multiple levels with different angles. It examines how players tackle a problem with new solutions.
The game has been in development since January 2016 and is expected to release by the end of April, offering both a single player and group player mode with plans to expand to multiplayer in a future patch. Untangled 3 will utilize HTML5 as opposed to C# and Silverlight, which Untangled and Untangled 2 used.
In Untangled 3, players explore a Data Flow Graph (DFG) which presents an electrical engineer problem. The bigger the graph, the more computational resources needed. The goal is to reduce the size of the DFG by turning red blocks into white blocks — thereby reducing the energy usage.
Players increase their score by compacting blocks, reducing violations and finding the least complex solution in the fastest time. Diagonal blocks are more complex than vertical or horizontal ones. The higher the score, the lower the energy used in the solution.
Compacting is taking two units and finding the shortest distance between them while violations occur. Ideally, a player wants to compact a graph using only 4-way architecture styles, meaning each block can communicate with its immediate neighbors (top, bottom, left and right.)
In addition to the gameplay itself, a chat box allows players to communicate with each other and a statistics box as an in-game log to track previous actions.
In the new group mode for Untangled 3, players simultaneously work on one giant puzzle that is broken down into smaller pieces. The developers then combine all the pieces together for a finished solution.
Complex problems are hard for one person to solve. Multiplayer allows both collaborative and competitive teamwork. While Untangled had a maximum of four players working together, Untangled 3 will have 40.
“So when people are trying to pack, we give them a puzzle which has a bunch of blocks, colorful blocks connected with some wires,” she said. “So, they’re looking at, ‘why there’s a big mess of wires here? So, I need to untangle them and put them in aesthetically the best possible way, right? And try to go with the most compact version?’ Because its visually appealing to them.”
While they are doing that, the development team is recording the cool moves and strategies used to develop better algorithms and train computers to do that.
The lab is interdisciplinary, with electrical engineering students working on the mathematic models behind the scenes. Computer science students help with programming by putting the framework together and visual arts and sciences students work on the aesthetics and graphics to make it pretty. Volunteers range from TAMS to Ph.D students.
Challenges the developers face include how to make it more fun, how to keep players engaged and visualization. There is the question of representing the game in a way that engages broader audiences while making a 2,500 grid graph visually appealing.
“We are teaching them engineering concepts while hiding all the details from them,” Mehta said.
Featured Image: Anirban Chakraborty, Satyanarayana Chivukula, Alok Pal, and Zachary Simpson smile. The four men are the core members on creating Untangled 3, the newest iteration of the Engineering game. Travis McCallum
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