Monday, October 09, 2006

Grand Theft Auto

I had a crazy idea the other day about how a new approach to drug development for the third world might help accelerate the contribution of technology to education. But it needs a little setup first...

In the mid-nineties, the company I worked for, EAI Interactive, created a series of interactive CD-ROMs for McGraw-Hill called "The Dynamic Human". As McGraw-Hill Higher Ed describes it, Dynamic Human was an interactive tool to help:

"students visualize relationships between human structure and function. The Dynamic Human includes 3D rotatable models, histology review, animations and quizzes to help reinforce anatomical concepts that are often difficult to understand."

It was a nice enough series for its day, though two things held it back from being all that it might have been. First, the technology limitations in the 90's were pretty severe. Video content and 3D visualization was still pretty exotic, and the technology of the day put severe restrictions on resolutions, sizes, speeds, and complexity of models.

These limitations have been mostly overcome in the ensuing decade. By the end of the next decade, they will be all but forgotten, a curiousity of an emerging technology, like the grainy, jerky, silent films that marked the early days of the movies.

But the second thing that hampered Dynamic Human's development remains with us, and shows no signs of disappearing. DH was by far and away the most expensive CD-ROM that EAI made for McGraw, but for all that its budget was about $150,000. Mike Sellberg, who helped oversee the development of DH, tells me he thinks EAI actually spent closer to $500,000 on development. As Mike, now executive vice president and chief technology officer at iMed Studios put it, "Oh yeah, we took a bath on that one."

At the same time, EAI could easily get more than a million dollars to make games like Barbie Magic Hairstyler or A Bug's Life. And those budgets are child's play compared to the $10-$30 million dollar development budgets for major hits like Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft.

The market rewards for entertainment content are simply much greater than for educational content, and the result is that there is a lot more enganging content being created for the purposes of entertainment than is being made for education.

Which is fine if you're a game junkie or a stockholder in Electronic Arts, but it's more than a little disturbing if you're a parent or teacher trying to encourage kids to spend more time doing their history homework and less time learning how to be a video assassin.

Content creation for this emerging media is an expensive, time-intensive process, and it is likely to remain so even as the delivery technology exponentially increases in capability and decreases in cost. While the market can help companies raise the tens of millions needed to fund the creation of rich, deeply immersive environments to teach kids how to be theives and pimps, there's just no way for a for-profit company to raise a similar budget to help create content of a similarly immersive quality to teach World History, Biology or Chemistry.

Which is where drugs come in...

Because there is a similar problem in the development of a different type of intellectual property -- drugs. Drug development is exceptionally expensive, and the market does not reward the treating of all diseases equally.

As Victoria Hale, a 2006 MacArthur Fellow and CEO of One World Health, the first not-for-profit drug company, put it in a recent interview with Marketplace:
Pharmaceutical R&D, as I'm sure you know, is extremely expensive. And even the ability to recoup the development costs, let alone bring back revenue beyond that, is in some cases, for some diseases just not possible.

One World Health hopes to address this problem by creating drugs targeted at these diseases that the for-profit companies can't touch, funding their development through philanthropic contributions of money and IP, combined with revenues from the products it creates, which will be sold in private markets in the developing world.

It's hard to say whether One World Health will be successful or not, but the idea of creating a company that plays by different funding rules to create worthy products to address needs that the normal market mechanisms can't address is a good one.

So why not a not-for-profit company built along similar lines to create compelling immersive content for educational purposes?

The analogy is pretty tight. Ignorance is the disease the game market can't reach, immersive content the expensive but potentially effective cure that game companies can't afford to create. Donations of IP could include gaming engines, development tools, as well as licenses to characters and concepts from popular culture - like the characters from CSI or the imaginative and popular world of Jurrassic Park. The immersive products could be sold to individuals, teachers, schools, districts for use on PC's or Playstations or whatever delivery vehicles the future brings.

Any investors out there?


Paul October 9, 2006 at 7:00 AM  

Since I work in Higher-Ed, I haven't got money to invest in his idea for a NPO, but I'd certainly try to contribute time and talent. Seems like a very worthwhile model to experiment with.

Seems like one of the biggest challenges (given our society) is getting people to understand that funding education is as important as funding things like cancer research, AIDS research, and the like. Disease kills people you love - there is a very tangible connection there and people are willing to support it both emotionally and financially. Education is much more subjective. It's hard to get people to even agree on what needs to be taught - and where (and why to keep rhetoric out of it) - let alone talk about the societal ills or elevation that are the results of education (especially for those people who don't have children, or don't have children who are currently in school).

On the other hand, just because it's complex doesn't mean that there's not a strong idea.

John Matson,  October 9, 2006 at 9:13 AM  


I find this posted topic a most interesting thought and proposal for its overall humanitarian merit and potential meaningfulness.

Have you given thought to perhaps presenting your idea to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation? It seems to fit the particulars stated under the foundation's Global Health Program. I encourage you to pay a visit to the foundation's Web site at:

I think this could easily become an initiative to pursue under the auspices of the joint collaborative efforts of our envisioned relationship with EON Reality, Inc. We surely have the academic and research expertise within the greater ASU community to pull together into a dynamic interdisciplinary effort, and at ASU Polytechnic our Global Technology & Development program would be a natural tie-in for said project in particular.

Just a thought in response to your call for: "Any investors out there?" I have heard that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation may have monies to invest in efforts of this kind. If anyone could convince them of underwriting such a project, I am sure it could be you in concert with a few other forward thinking folks such as Joel Orr, Mike Riddle and a number of the other members in COFES: Congress On the Future of Engineering Software organization (

Now that I have gotten to make your acquaintance, and understand a bit of your thinking and style of collaborative support and encouragement, I am enjoying the various items you have in your Blog!

John Matson

Sam,  April 22, 2009 at 8:53 AM  

Grand Theft Auto IV has a very huge buget but this is returned quickly due to its huge sales:

Investors have to encourage these and get more involved to succeed.