Physics, philosophy and a knack for gaining funding

By Shelly Simonds

ANU student Tom Barbalet has found a clever way to get science research funding. Thinking his proposal for computer simulation of fragile ecosystems was too interdisciplinary to be funded by Australia's main science funding body, the Australian Research Council, he turned the project into a CD ROM game and successfully secured funding from the Australian Film Commission (AFC).

The CD ROM, entitled 'the Nation of Nervana: Isle of the Apes', was recently released. It gives the player god-like control of a tropical island where one can simulate different scenarios - like the destruction of rainforest, insects or fish - and then witness the consequences. The 21-year-old physics and philosophy student said the game is meant to bring home the idea that you can't damage one part of the environment without impacting another.

The game's environmental bent is the result of his travels in Malaysia's wilderness. "It's very powerful to see a male monkey just going berserk because his territory is being destroyed or a mother monkey carrying her baby from tree to tree to escape the destruction caused by developers. It was a real awakening," said Barbalet, who is currently doing honours in the Department of Philosophy.

The $13,000 Barbalet received from the AFC to develop the game isn't so much a grant as a loan, which must be repaid. As a result he is gaining intensive hands-on marketing experience with sales, promotion and distribution.

He seems to have the knack. To sales calls he brings a promotional stuffed animal, a monkey like the ones that star in his CD ROM.

"It's basically a childish gimmick," he jokes. "But it really seems to appeal to people."

So far Barbalet has distributed 480 copies of his CD ROM and 30 monkeys. He is marketing them through local record stores Songland Records and the Music Shop having made the business contacts himself.

A computer whiz since childhood, Barbalet also treated the music on the Escape from Nervana CD - a mixture of techno, hip hop and medieval chants. "Many people buy the CD just for the music," he said.

Sophisticated math is required to get the dynamic scaling right in a virtual reality game. And many game developers can't handle the complicated algorithms required to maintain proportionality as virtual landscapes zoom in and out. Barbalet said his physics background has helped him employ algorithms never used in a CD ROM game before.

"Physics gives you an appreciation for the fact that even a complicated equation has a simple meaning," said Mr Barbalet.

When Barbalet explained the mathematical modelling he wanted to use in the CD ROM, the AFC openly doubted it was possible.

"This was just a challenge to make me stay up all night working on the project," he said.

For more information on the Nation of Nervana: Isle of the Apes, check the website at

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