Hordes of children ran around as wild as a locust swarm at the recent USA Science & Engineering Festival. The main attraction: the Lockheed Martin booth, with its faux F-22 cockpit and Orion spacecraft simulator. There, the virtual big guns provoked a surprising mix of reactions from the 7-year-olds. Some apathy. Some shouts of: "Shoot him! You had him!" And some surprising willingness to destroy the nation's capital.
The main draw to the Washington, DC festival was the promise of jumping inside a F-22 cockpit. Or at least, jumping into something that slightly resembles a F-22 cockpit. You'd think everyone would want to. But at the F-22 Cockpit exhibit, there were only 4 or 5 kids in line. That was weird. Everywhere else, kids were kicking and screaming and darting around to see stuff like magnets and water guns. Silly kids.
But to watch the kids actually in the F-22 cockpit, it was clear most of them were acing the simulation. No ADHD here. They just jumped in, grabbed the throttle and focused their attention on the screen.
As the Lockheed Martin pilot explained what each button did, the kids quietly nodded, waiting to get on with it. The pilot obliged, putting each kid through the same scenario: one enemy plane, two enemy planes and four enemy planes. It was a little like a fancy video game. To win, you need to shoot. These kids lived to shoot. And they were good at it. One 8-year-old kid shocked all the pilots by destroying all four enemy planes in 8 seconds. The pilots had never even done that. Oh, and of course, all the kids shot at the enemy pilot who parachuted out of the plane.
Right next to the F-22 Cockpit Demonstrator was the virtual F-16. Instead of shooting planes and/or people, the task for this simulation was to take off from a runway, circle the sky and then land. Easy enough, right? Wrong. This was much more difficult. Especially for these precocious kids.
The F-16 cockpit looked more sophisticated than the F-22, but kind of in the way that an old VCR looks more complicated than an Apple TV. The simulator's attendant was trying to make the challenge just as fun as the knock 'em down shooter of the F-22, but without the option to destroy things, it was like trying to feed the kids broccoli.
The simulation starts by making the plane take off from the runaway. What loses the kids is the monotony of being in the air. Staring at the blue screen while circling the sky with no target to hunt is boring. Their attention span just doesn't last. Six different kids played with the F-16 and only one of them successfully landed the plane. The rest were itching to get out of the cockpit before it was even over, crashing be damned.
"You're not going to bomb the White House", a volunteer explains.
An indignant kid asks: "Why not?"
"Because, well, because." She sighs.
The kid tries to fire a missile anyway. The volunteer shakes her head. The kid bounces away to the next exhibit, just as the helicopter crashes into the home of the leader of the free world.
The Orion Spacecraft Simulator was a hand-eye coordination task. No shooting, no taking off, just a simulation of docking the Orion to the ISS. It's an exercise in following directions. Move a joystick to line up the Orion's crosshairs with visual cues on the screen. It wasn't hard at all.
The kids, however, became weirdly passive in this exhibit. Tell them to push the joystick left, they pushed it once and waited. And waited. Even when it was obvious they were going to miss the target, they kept waiting. After firing machine guns with the F-22 or crashlanding the F-16, they became silent, almost fearful of deviating from the instructions. Maybe they just didn't like the Orion simulator all that much.
At the Human Immersive Lab, participants donned virtual reality goggles and pretended that they were in space completing a task. The idea is to work with a partner (also blind with the goggles) to get a job done. Everyone was lost. At least the kids looked endearing.
What stood out most at the fair was that the kids seemed a little desensitized to the magic of technology. Growing up with iPhones and iPads, Xboxes and PS3s, Kinects and Wiis, a virtual spaceship doesn't seem all that impressive. How surprising is a touchscreen if it just makes you look for Fruit Ninja? Or how wide could a kid's eyes get when a virtual plane if they've already done it in Battlefield 3?
It just seems that by missing the sense of wonder in the technology itself, the kids create it themselves by blowing things up. It seems like it would be tough to grow up today. Or maybe it's just jealousy—from a dinosaur's perspective, the kids seem to have access to so much technology already.