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 seven-year-olds. Some apathy. Some shouts of: “Shoot him! You had him!” And some surprising willingness to destroy Washington DC.
F-22 Cockpit Demonstrator
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 four or five 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.
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 eight-year-old kid shocked all the pilots by destroying all four enemy planes in eight 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.
F-16 Takeoff and Landing
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.
Helicopter Experience around Washington DC
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.
Orion Human Spacecraft Simulator
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.
Human Immersive Lab
What stood out most at the fair was that the kids seemed a little desensitised 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.