NASA is going into outer space again, but this time instead of launching a spaceship, it's sending some Angry Birds.
Looking for ways to attract new audiences to its space and technology mission a year ago, NASA saw a prime opportunity to fly with some hugely popular birds.
And now the results of NASA’s innovative collaboration with mobile game company Rovio Entertainment is approaching lift-off: the Angry Birds Space game created by Rovio with NASA’s cooperation debuts March 22.
Angry Birds is one of the most popular mobile games ever, with the company claiming more than 500 million downloads in two years. Originally created on iPhone, it is also available for Android and other devices. In the game, stylized cartoon birds are launched to destroy pigs.
“The value [of the collaboration] for NASA is in getting people excited about science and space technology,” Bob Jacobs, a NASA spokesman, told Federal Computer Week, GCN's sister publication, March 13. "This could be an important tool to reach new communities. We saw the possibility of reaching a very different audience through a gaming platform,” Jacobs said.
In the original game, the player launches the angry birds with a catapult to destroy the structures in which the pigs are hiding. The game reflects the laws of physics, so the player can change the angle and power of the catapult to change the trajectory of the bird.
The new space version of the game applies the laws of physics that exist in outer space. Rovio designers met with NASA engineers to develop ways to demonstrate zero gravity principles in movements within the game. The game also contains a permanent Web link to a NASA website on zero gravity, also known as microgravity.
The collaboration is generating a lot of interest. A jointly-produced video featuring NASA astronaut Don Pettit at the International Space Station has already received more than 4 million views on YouTube. In the video, Pettit demonstrates zero gravity principles in action with a stuffed bird resembling the Angry Red Bird character.
Rovio and NASA debuted the introductory video March 8 at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Tex. Pettit can be seen in the video talking about gravity while floating around the station and shooting one of the stuffed birds down a tunnel with the help of a slingshot.
It all started with a tweet
The project started a year ago when Jacobs noticed several tweets mentioning NASA and Angry Birds. “NASA launched a man to the moon. We launch birds into pigs,” read a tweet from game consultant George Bray.
There also were tweets circulating about smart phones today allegedly having more computing power than NASA computers back in the 1960s, Jacobs recalled.
Jacobs responded through the @NASA Twitter account he manages. “Hey, RovioMobile, our computers are a bit better than they were in ’69. We might be able to help you launch birds if you can find a pig in space,” Jacobs tweeted March 27, 2011.
Rovio also responded, and a conversation began. “It started with a tweet,” Jacobs said. “It sparked a lot of light bulbs going off in people’s minds.”
The collaboration took off from there, with NASA and Rovio signing a “Space Act Agreement” outlining the terms of the collaboration with Rovio, which is from Finland. The federal agency has many such agreements in which it cooperates with private sector projects, Jacobs said. For example, NASA previously had signed an agreement with Paramount Pictures for allowing the filming of a Transformers movie at the Kennedy Space Center. All such agreements are vetted by NASA management to ensure they comply with regulations.
One of the initial fruits of the NASA-Rovio effort was that a version of Angry Birds released in 2011 had an “outer space” level embedded in it. Rovio debuted that version to coincide with the final space station launch, and the company distributed tee-shirts and other publicity materials.
There are no financial terms in the agreement with Rovio, Jacobs said. NASA has no mechanism to receive funding for such efforts, he added.
Jacobs said the collaboration has been successful because the goal is to reach new communities, including millions of people likely to play Angry Birds Space.
“We see it as a mutually beneficial relationship that allows us to get NASA mission information into the game,” Jacobs said. But he acknowledged that measuring the success of the endeavor might be a bit tricky.
For example, Rovio’s YouTube video on the NASA Angry Birds Space announcement has received more than 4 million views. Meanwhile, the NASATelevision version of the introductory video has received only about 38,000 views.
On the other hand, Jacobs said many people have tweeted about, and shared links to, both videos on social websites, including Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. NASA is gaining value from that sharing even when people view the video at Rovio’s YouTube page rather than NASA’s, he asserted, because the people are being exposed to the same principles of science and technology regardless.
“Having a bird and pigs in space are fun and cool ideas,” Jacobs said. “We are seeing communities getting excited about it and sharing the information.”