Outer Limits

Where science and technology meet.

by / May 3, 2007

Ropin' the Wind

Last year, the Texas General Land Office (GLO) made an announcement that may put the state at the forefront of the renewable energy frontier. There's no escaping Texas' reputation as home to big oil, but if GLO Commissioner James Patterson is right, the state may be ground zero for the coming "wind rush." In a GLO press release, Patterson claimed he was "announcing one cure for America's addiction to oil." The cure is a proposed wind farm off the Texas coast, which -- if completed -- will be one of two enormous wind farms to be built on reclaimed oil platforms.

Both Louisiana-based Wind Energy Systems Technologies (WEST) and Australia-based Superior Renewable Energy sought and received lease agreements from the GLO to build offshore wind farms spread over tens of thousands of acres in the Gulf.

Turbines mounted on the repurposed oil platforms would harness coastal wind energy. The smaller WEST project in Louisiana aims to produce enough energy for 50,000 homes while the larger Superior Renewable Energy farm promises to power more than 100,000. WEST is set to launch first with plans to start operating in late 2008.


Shoot the Moon

Armadillo Aerospace, a Mesquite, Texas-based company, put some of its out-of-this-world technology to the test this past October. The company was competing at the Wirefly X-Prize Cup exposition -- created by the X-Prize foundation and New Mexico to encourage advances in private space travel -- in the deserts near Las Cruces, N.M.

The original X-Prize, awarded to SpaceShipOne in 2004, has been expanded to cover not only rocketry but also other space-faring vehicles, such as a lunar lander. It was in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a competition at the exposition funded by NASA, that Armadillo Aerospace attempted to make history.

The company's privately designed and built, liquid oxygen-fueled craft made three attempts to lift off to the required 50 meters in altitude, maintain flight and land within 100 meters of the takeoff spot. All went well during the first launch until the vehicle returned for a landing. It was then one of the craft's legs buckled, toppling the vehicle and setting it aflame. Despite repair efforts, two later attempts also failed. No one claimed the prize, but the contest will be held again later this year.


High-Tech Rehab
A Texas companyA $50 million rehabilitation facility recently opened its doors in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. But the Center for the Intrepid is no ordinary rehab clinic -- it's a state-of-the-art facility loaded with the latest in rehabilitation technology. The center is designed to treat wounded U.S. soldiers, with an emphasis on rehabilitating those who have lost limbs or undergone amputation.  

Funded entirely through private donations from 600,000 Americans, the four-story, 60,000-square-foot center houses an array of high-tech treatment tools and programs. Besides amenities like an indoor running track and a climbing wall, the center boasts something called a computer-assisted rehabilitation environment, or CAREN.

CAREN is the only simulator of its kind in the U.S. Built in a large dome, it is an immersive video experience that virtualizes several activities to help patients relearn them. According to an Army press release, CAREN can replicate everything from walking down the sidewalk to water sports.

Patients and their families at the Center for the Intrepid are also housed in 16,800-square-foot Fisher Houses -- multifamily homes built by the nonprofit Fisher House program.


Current Cars
A Texas company developed an energy storage technology that might spark the electric car industry and could completely change the battery industry as well.

Cedar Park-based EEStor claims it can produce a barium-titanate battery that drastically improves upon today's leading lithium-ion technology. Some of the claims are taking

people by surprise -- and fostering skepticism. It is said the battery takes only minutes to charge and goes 500 miles on $9 worth of electricity -- making its cost to operate a fraction of the cost of a combustion engine.

Toronto-based ZENN Motor Co., a zero-emissions vehicle manufacturer, will begin using the EEStor battery in its "neighborhood electric vehicle."

"We believe it could have a significant impact on the electric vehicle industry," said ZENN CEO Ian Clifford in a company press release, referring to the battery's capabilities.



At BreakAway Federal Systems, games are serious business. The Hunt Valley, Md.-based company, founded in 1998, produces popular, award-winning strategy and simulation games for consumers, as well as high-end simulations for various clients such as the Joint Forces Command, the Institute for Defense Analyses, and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC).

BreakAway simulations include aircraft carrier flight deck training and Middle Eastern convoy operations. Now, in partnership with TAMU-CC, BreakAway is developing Pulse, a simulator to train health-care professionals. BreakAway CEO Doug Whatley recently spoke with Texas Technology about Pulse.


How do you describe what Pulse is?
Pulse combines video game and training technologies to create a highly immersive and realistic virtual learning platform for medical and health-care professionals to practice and learn clinical skills. This platform addresses a growing need in health-care training by enabling rapid hands-on learning in an engaging, safe, realistic and infinitely reusable medium. Pulse is a research project headed by Dr. Claudia Johnston and panels of experts in medicine and learning theory. BreakAway is the developer on the project and has an established development studio on the TAMU-CC campus.


How did the relationship between BreakAway and TAMU-CC start?
The relationship started at the first Games for Health Conference where I was giving a presentation. Dr. Johnston had just received funding through the Office of Naval Research and was looking for a developer that could meet the project needs. After my presentation, we discussed the possibilities of working together on this exciting and innovative project. Later Dr. Johnston called to tell me BreakAway was selected as the developer of Pulse. We were thrilled.


Is Pulse a high-end video game, a simulator -- or both?
Pulse realistically simulates medical environments and situations, including the stress and emotion, in a three-dimensional space with a level of visual fidelity never before attempted. Unlike current simulators, which usually only represent one system, organ, function or part of the body, Pulse is a simulation of the treatment environment as well as the entire human body, internally and externally. When Pulse is completed, we will have simulated the body and all of its functioning systems in a true virtual patient that presents with lifelike accuracy and responds accordingly to treatments and procedures. So, Pulse is a health-care training curriculum transformed into a 3-D experience. It's the same curriculum, but a new way of presenting it, engaging learners with it, and practicing and mastering it. While we wouldn't define it as a high-end video game, it certainly employs advanced technology from the video gaming world.


How do you hope Pulse will help those who use it?

A prerelease version is being tested at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The hope is that Pulse will advance medical education and patient safety by becoming a key component in medical education curriculum, and be of service to the nation's military and future of health-care professionals.


Tell me about your other simulators, such as 24 Blue Flight Deck.

24 Blue is a training simulation for practicing safety skills on the deck of an aircraft carrier. We sent our development team to meet with the crew on the USS Harry Truman to develop the simulation. It's done from the point of view of the "shooters," who use hand signals and gestures to move planes, stage them for takeoff and launch them in succession in an incredibly loud, chaotic environment, where things happen fast, and safety -- or mastery of the hand signals -- is critical. The Navy is using 24 Blue to demonstrate the power of game-based simulations for training, and we hope to expand it to be more comprehensive in the number of positions and perspectives represented in training exercises.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.