West Hartford Physicist Develops Game To Teach History Of Science

West Hartford entrepreneur Peter Solomon has always been intrigued by what he calls the stardust story — the idea that all of Earth’s creatures are made from the atoms of collapsed stars.

Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss called it the most poetic thing he knew about physics.

Astronomer Carl Sagan called it a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Singer-songwriter Kesha even spoke of it in her song “Spaceship”: “I am nothing more than recycled stardust and borrowed energy, born from a rock spinning in the ether.”

For Solomon, who has a background in physics, chemistry and engineering, the story was so compelling that it became the central theme of his sixth and latest business venture, creating an interactive video game to teach kids about science. He plans to release The Stardust Mystery by the end of the year with help from nearly $1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation.

It’s an ambitious game with plans for multiple “episodes,” like the Age of Dinosaurs, The Big Bang and Pangea, each one a world unto itself with new tasks, challenges and characters.

A Phase I grant of $225,000 and Phase II grant of $750,000 have helped support most of the company’s 12 interns, including two from the Pathways Academy of Technology and Design who won the East Hartford high school’s "Top Contributor Award" in 2015 for their work on the project.

Two more interns, from the University of Connecticut, were trained as game developers through a $120,800 grant from Connecticut Innovations, the state’s venture capital firm. Most of the interns study at the University of Connecticut, where Solomon’s co-grantee and vice president of game design Ken Thompson is an assistant professor of game design and development.

In 2015, researchers in the concentration designed an interactive media wall for the lobby of Boston Children’s Hospital, but working with Solomon has offered Thompson’s department its first foray into the growing field of virtual reality.

The team plans to start by producing some 360-degree videos compatible with headsets like Google Cardboard, which offer a limited, but affordable, virtual reality experience. Later, Solomon hopes to put out an immersive, virtual reality version of The Stardust Mystery for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift systems.

This is Solomon’s first gaming business, though he’s founded several Connecticut companies over the last 40 years with his wife Sally Solomon and partner David Hamblen, beginning with technology development firm Advanced Fuel Research in East Hartford in 1980.

From that company, they spun off three other businesses. They started the first, Online Technologies, in 1991 to develop equipment to test computer chips and sold it in 2001 for $23 million. That same year, the trio founded Real Time Analyzers to design and manufacture devices for measuring fuel quality. In 2010, they founded their third AFR spin-off, Image Insight, based on radioactivity detection technology.

Over the years, Solomon has managed more than $20 million in research contracts, according to AFR.

But TheBeamer LLC is Peter and Sally Solomon’s most creative venture to date, and by far their most personal.

The birth of his 12th, and likely last, grandchild inspired Peter Solomon to take on a lifelong goal of writing a book. He penned The Stardust Mystery, a story of travel through time and space, of the history of the Earth and the universe, with his wife and two of his children, Jeffrey and Joanne Solomon. The main characters are based on four of his grandchildren, his original audience.

“They said, ‘Gee, we like the book but can you build us the time machine?’” Solomon recalled.

That’s when he decided to turn the story into a game, one so fun that kids would want to learn about science.

“The teaching of science is too much fact-oriented — individual little factoids of different parts of science and not enough about the interesting thread of science,” he said.

Three years later, students will soon be able to take on the roles of the games’ four characters — an explorer, scientist, navigator and guardian — to explore The Stardust Mystery and talk with the game’s expert avatars, depictions of real-life scientists who can “hear” and respond to hundreds of spoken questions. Albert Einstein is there, as well as Georges Lemaître, the originator of the Big Bang Theory, and little-known astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who discovered how to measure the distance between stars and galaxies for the first time.

“She was so obscure they tried to nominate her for a Nobel Prize three years after she had died,” Solomon said.

He named his company TheBeamer LLC after the game’s space- and time-travel machine, the Beamer. Players can catch a glimpse of it while they play by tilting their “heads” up to the sky, where it’s floating above them.

The game is already being tested by students in the West Hartford School District, who will receive the finished game for free from Beamer. In December, it won the "Kids Vote Award" at the 2016 U.S. Department of Education's Ed Games Expo. And last weekend, The Stardust Mystery displayed at the Boston Festival of Indie Games, where staff joked they would have to draw straws for the honor of wearing an inflatable T-Rex costume.

On Thursday, they’ll show the game one more time in Baltimore for a meeting of the National Science Teachers Association.

But, the group cautioned at a recent staff meeting, it’s still very much a work in progress. As a few Beamer employees worked on a complicated security problem — how to keep pornography out of the program’s artificial intelligence features — others noted simpler issues, like the fact that the dinosaurs on the screen were missing their shadows.

But for a moment, the designer at the controls was just strolling around the sandy landscape. He took selfies with a T-Rex, tried to ride on the back of a pterosaur and tossed a horseshoe crab next to a tree.

In that particular scene, the player is supposed to aim for water to help the arthropods survive the impending asteroid strike that wiped out dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

But sometimes, even the game’s creators get caught up in the fun of The Stardust Mystery, said art director Bhavin Patel.

“We have far too much joy in just throwing the crabs,” he said.

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