UCI SURF-IT Seminars Encompass Diverse Subjects

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, Calif., July 13, 2007 -- On the surface, Blog readers, online game economics and nanotechnology have absolutely nothing in common. At Calit2@UCI, however, all three are hands-on research projects conducted by students and mentors under the auspices of SURF-IT, the institute’s summer undergraduate research program. And all were featured topics at the program’s first seminars held last week.

The seminars are held throughout the summer for project mentors and/or student participants to share their research with other students and interested guests.  

A full house, including participants from IM-SURE, another UCI undergraduate research program, attended the first two seminars.


Peter Krapp
Nathaniel Pope

An Online Economy

Film and Media Studies Associate Professor Peter Krapp, whose SURF-IT research project examines artificial worlds and the gaming capital created by online games, shared the podium with his SURF-IT student Nathaniel Pope. Pope shared the demographics of online gamers and the economics of in-game monetary transactions. He said rapid explosion in participation is bringing about great opportunity and a few problems.

Some statistics: online and in-game advertising is expected to grow from about $100 million in 2006 to about $550 million by 2010. Forty-five percent of players in online games engage in “forex” or real-money trade, the sale or trade of virtual goods and services for real currency. As a matter of fact, the gross domestic product per capita in the game “Everquest” is $2,266, which makes it equivalent to the 77th country in the world, ahead of China and India.

Bill Tomlinson
Eric Baumer
Philip Collins
Philip Collins

Pope said that demand for in-game currency known as “gold” has spawned a Chinese gold farm industry. Players are paid low wages to play the game to earn the currency for their employers. The phenomenon has become a $900 million market that has transformed Chinese cybercafés into virtual sweatshops, where “workers” earn below-average wages.

Krapp and Pope are investigating the socio-cultural and economic implications of real-money trades on synthetic worlds by using a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods.

The Role of the Reader

Assistant Professor of Informatics Bill Tomlinson, who is conducting and overseeing research in a variety of IT-related areas, told the audience that all of his projects have two elements in common: computation and people.

Graduate student Eric Baumer, who is working with Tomlinson, discussed his research into Blog readers, which he is conducting with SURF-IT student Mark Sueyoshi.

Blogs, a word derived from “Web logs,” are frequent online posts written by individuals or groups and presented in reverse-chronological order.

During the past few years, Blogs have become a powerful force in the news media, a popular outlet for self-expression and the object of an increasing amount of academic research.

Most research to date, however, has focused on bloggers themselves, said Baumer. But readers can and do play a large part in shaping the publication, and he and Sueyoshi are investigating the practices of readers: what role they play in this increasingly prominent medium, what their reading practices and strategies are, and why they read Blogs.

They will use semi-structured interviews, interactive observations and quantitative data analysis in order to create tools that support Blog reading, Baumer said.

A Tiny World

Physics and Astronomy Assistant Professor Philip Collins and his SURF-IT student Phillip Haralson are building single-molecule electronic circuits. Collins said nanotechnology, which is used to build transistors, biosensors and other devices at a far-smaller scale than ever before, will explode over the next several decades.

Although scientists have been trying to shrink things for decades, new microscopes like the atomic force and the scanning tunneling varieties have “opened up a whole new realm,” he said. “Now you can see a single atom, you can push it around and you can build with it.”

Collins, who is also mentoring two IM-SURE students, said the solutions to many of science’s problems are locked in the nanoscale.

Today, the field of nanotechnology is producing composites, coatings, lubricants and enhanced plastics. The future, however, will see nano-motors, nano-electronics and even nano-robots that can roam around a human’s blood cells, attacking and destroying cancer cells, he said.

Collins explained how carbon nanotubes, which are sheets rolled into cylinders only one nanometer wide (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter) can produce wiring so thin it can’t be seen by the human eye. Nanotubes are stronger than any known metal alloy, he said, and can be used to make circuits 100 times smaller than those used in today’s technology.

They can also attach to atoms or proteins, producing sensors so sensitive they could detect a virus in the person sitting next to you or identify foods the minute they start to spoil.