WASHINGTON – Tom Nowak reviewed the patient’s medical history. Blood was not flowing in a vessel near the heart and Nowak’s job was to insert a stent to keep the passageway open.
He introduced a guide wire in the diaphragm and slowly moved it in search of the blockage. A monitor showed the wire exploring the vessels until it met some resistance, which is where he put the stent.
But the patient moaned and Nowak knew he had just perforated a vessel. Before he could do anything, the patient died.
Game over. Literally.
Nowak’s “patient” was a three-dimensional computer image of the heart, with software that lets medical students move wires and feel sensations they would feel with a real patient, moans and blood pressure complications included.
“Can I kill the patient? Absolutely,” said Nowak, director of marketing at Immersion Medical, the Gaithersburg firm that produces the AccuTouch Endovascular Simulation System.
Immersion is just one of the companies turning video game technology toward serious uses in medicine, defense, education, telecommunications and other fields. In the process, they have turned Maryland into the main developer of computer video games and interactive technology on the East Coast.
There are almost 40 such companies in the state, providing more than 600 jobs, according to economic development officials. While no hard numbers are available, officials estimate that the industry is worth millions per year, and schools have begun to train workers for it.
Hunt Valley — which the Baltimore County Department of Economic Development calls the state’s Silicon Valley — has most of Maryland’s game developers and is considered a major area in the nation for this information-technology niche. Maryland firms include the world’s largest game accessory company, InterAct Accessories, and the headquarters of one of the largest international testing companies, Absolute Quality Inc.
“I think Maryland, with Boston and North Carolina very close behind, is the largest concentration” of video game developers on the East Coast, said Jason Della Rocca, director of the International Game Developers Association.
Video gaming got its start in Maryland for “one reason: Sid Meier,” said Kathleen Harmeyer, coordinator of the Internet and Multimedia Technology Program of the Community College of Baltimore County.
Meier, a member of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, was the first to create games that integrated role playing, strategy and action. He started a company in Maryland 20 years ago and some of the people who worked with him later went on to open their own businesses here.
The trend took off a few years ago when companies realized that the same technology behind games like “Civilization” and “Tomb Raider” could be used to train surgeons, emergency personnel responding to the bombing of a city, or people running a business.
The result has been a rapidly growing industry.
Breakaway Games Inc. in Hunt Valley once produced only entertainment games, but now about half of its products have military applications contracted by the Defense Department and other agencies. Because of the complexity of the topics — real war and battle scenarios — Breakaway Games had to hire about a third of its personnel from military contractors.
Another application is “Space Station: SIM,” in which players build a space station, maintain it, run experiments and give technical support. It was developed by GRS Games in Towson, in association with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Debbie Rivera, spokeswoman for NASA’s Strategic Alliances Office, said the agency was interested in “Space Station: SIM” because its hyper-realistic nature gives the public have a better understanding of what NASA does.
“Restaurant Empire,” developed by Enlight in Parkville, is so realistic that it has been used in business schools and some universities, including Stanford and Harvard, said Enlight CEO Paul Lombardy. The real-time, three-dimensional game puts the player in charge of a restaurant, from balancing finances to answering customer complaints.
Other games involve history, like Firaxis Games’ Civil War Collection.
“A lot of people go to buy books about the topic (after playing the game) because it opens a whole new world,” said Firaxis CEO Jeff Briggs.
While no one can say precisely how much this market is worth, Breakaway Games President Deborah Tillett noted that military budgets increasingly include billions for defense modeling and simulating.
Breakaway’s mix of entertainment and serious applications is unusual for developers, said CEO Doug Whatley, but he predicts that will be the trend in coming years.
And Lombardy noted that the entertainment side of the business is never down: When the technology sector slowed in recent years, the video game sections of stores continued to prosper.
“Games are never impacted by economic problems. People want entertainment even if they are not employed,” he said.
But that is not a concern now, as defense, health and space budgets go up. Immersion Corp. — of which Immersion Medical is part — reported $20.2 million in 2003 revenues. And analysts said there is room for improvement.
“The problem now is that there is no business model for the companies to use,” said David Regeski, executive director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Foresight and Government Project. “If game developers come up with a business model, they can make some money.”
Some think Maryland is stronger than the West Coast when it comes to serious gaming because firms here are closer to the federal government, military bases and some of the most advanced health-research institutions, Whatley said. Businesses have also found that salaries here are lower than on the West Coast, Lombardy said.
Firms here tend to be small, with 30 to 50 employees on average, but size does not mean much in this business. Briggs, of Firaxis Games, said innovation is important: One company can release 20 games in a year and not make enough to pay the graphic designers, while another can have one hit and keep selling different versions for years.
Immersion Medical is now working on a program that would map a patient’s medical data and download it in the computer, so the physician can practice on the patient before actually working on him.
“It’s engineering magic,” Nowak said.
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