An academic arcade: students use Space Invaders as a learning tool

Watch video of Professor Hutchings' EE 427 class projects

It’s not every day you get to play video games in class. For Professor Brad Hutchings' Embedded Systems course, however, “Space Invaders” is the main item on the syllabus. His class of electrical and computer engineers is taking a futuristic spin on a retro video game, giving the 80s classic a whole new way to play.

Hutchings said, “The students are learning how embedded systems are built by building their own, and we did that with something simple – a vintage, early 80s video game.”

In addition to building the game from scratch, students were challenged to develop their own creative ways to operate the “Space Invaders” game.

Eric Hopper and James Warnock, both seniors in electrical engineering, built a system that interfaces with a microphone, allowing the player to control the game’s “tank” by humming at high and low frequencies to move the craft to the left or right. To fire, the player makes a shooting “Pyew! Pyew!” sound.

A team of computer engineers, Steven McKnight and John Kunke, built a working theremin to control their game. Theremins are normally used as musical instruments (like in the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations”), but in this case, the students rigged the instrument  to move the tank by moving their hands closer or farther away from the theremin wire.

Embedded systems are single-task computers without a traditional screen, mouse and keyboard setup. They can include anything from MP3 players to traffic light controls. Almost any machine with a digital display uses some form of an embedded system.

For Professor Hutchings, it has been fun to see how creative the students get with the assignment.

“It’s a flexible project,” Hutchings said. “Students propose an idea and get it approved ahead of time. We want it to be challenging but not so challenging that they’ll be in over their head.”

Hutchings has been teaching the embedded systems class for five years. In the past, students have had a wide variety of creative projects.

“We had one student who used the original schematics for the sound effects and rebuilt it from scratch with the original sounds.”

Another student wired a Dance Dance Revolution mat to the game, allowing the player to operate the game by stomping on the left and right arrows.

As much fun as the project is, it is primarily designed to teach students valuable skills. Warnock, who has an internship coming up this summer, said the project has taught him some things that will be useful.

“Learning how to use different architecture on the FPGA will be helpful for me in my internship,” Warnock said.

“It’s a lot more fun when you’re engineering a system that’s enjoyable,” Hutchings said. “This class is about training the students to do something interesting, but also to have them be excited.”

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