Search the two million mobile games on the app store, and you won’t find another quite like Hello Quantum.
Sure, it’s a simple puzzle game that can be enjoyed casually by anyone age five and up. But it’s also a gateway to — and interactive tutorial on — using an actual quantum computer. Players can toggle directly from playing the game to experimenting on the IBM Q Experience right on their phone. Oh, and did I mention that it’s addictively fun?
Unless you have a science-based Ph.D., “fun” probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind about quantum theory. It began in the early 20th century as a mathematical explanation for the bizarre behavior of subatomic particles, and went on to revolutionize physics and chemistry, leading to major tech advances like the laser and transistor.
Today, quantum is igniting a revolution in information processing. Since 1981, when Richard Feynman told a conference of scientists “if [they] want to make a simulation of nature, [they’d] better make it quantum mechanical,” we’ve dreamt of building quantum computers using quantum bits, or qubits. In the last couple of years, that dream has become a reality for scientists – and anyone else interested in quantum computing.
Hello Quantum: A game is born
The IBM Q platform went live in May 2016. Within two months, 28,000 users had signed up to use it. Even the IBM team was unprepared for its overnight popularity, especially among general science enthusiasts who knew little or nothing about quantum.
“We found that non-experts were really hungry to try to understand and use it,” recalls Talia Gershon, senior manager of the IBM Q Experience. To educate and encourage novices and hobbyists, Gershon’s team posted a beginner’s guide on the IBM Q website in 2017, but they were eager to find more ways to connect with this audience.
Around the same time, Dr. James Wootton, quantum computing researcher at the University of Basel, used the platform to build a game—a quantum version of Battleship that could be played on a Jupyter notebook.
“Needless to say, it was not the 2017 game of the year,” Wootton notes wryly. “But it did allow me to write a tutorial on how I did it, to help others do the same.”
Wootton’s blog brought Quantum Battleship to the attention of Gershon, who reached out to him in fall 2017 about collaborating on a new game, one that would be more accessible but just as quantum.
“The first few months were just brainstorming,” says Gershon. “At first we thought, ‘Let’s make another version of Quantum Battleships, that could be played on the real machine,’ but we were concerned that it would be wildly successful and clog up the machine’s queue. We considered a ‘Zelda’-type game, but it was too complicated. We finally got the idea for Hello Quantum in January.”
To help his students grasp the paradoxical nature of qubits (i.e., the notion of quantum uncertainty), Wootton gives his students puzzles to explore how quantum gates affect those states. That dynamic became the focus of Hello Quantum. (You can check it out here.)
In the game, each puzzle features a pattern of circles in various states: on (white), off (black) and random (outline). Four gates affect the circles in different ways, changing states and reconfiguring them. Using the gates, players must match a target pattern in the fewest possible moves. As the game progresses, puzzles get harder. At each level, players can click “Learn More” for an easily digestible tutorial on the quantum basics at work.
“Some of the moves in the game are somewhat mysterious,” Wootton admits. “But instead of thinking that it was a bug, we began to think of it as a feature — as something that could spark curiosity that would lead players into exploring quantum computing.”
From physics to pinball
After months of development, Wootton and a small team of designers and engineers nailed down the game’s structure and were ready to test it out.
“We did beta testing of an early version on students in a course I teach,” Wootton says. “It was a command-line version so it wasn’t pretty to play, but it gave us useful feedback.”
Responses were positive, but as a game, it still lacked the wow factor. Enter Amanda Shearon, visual and UX designer at IBM Research, who joined the team three weeks before Hello Quantum’s expected launch.
“I showed up and said, ‘Hi, we have to redesign this entire game,’” she chuckles. “It was unintuitive for users who didn’t know quantum and we needed to make it more fun. Immediately the team said ‘yes’ and responded to my crazy ideas and my vision.”
Shearon had practically no knowledge of quantum at the time, but that turned out to be a plus. “My unfamiliarity with quantum let me experience the concepts as I was designing,” she says. “I would ask [Wootton], ‘This is my understanding. Is this right?’ In a way, I was designing how to learn.”
Shearon drew on Sudoku and pinball machines as inspirations. She emulated Sudoku’s simplicity, while pinball helped Shearon boost the game’s pure enjoyment level.
“Arcade games are kind of timeless and really great for user interaction,” she explains. “On a pinball machine, there are essentially two control buttons, but each time you play it’s different. For this game, the quantum gates became our controls like in pinball.”
The revamped game launched on the App Store in late May. Without any advertising, it has already been downloaded more than 900 times. Feedback has been universally positive. As word spreads among the IBM Q community, expect those numbers to grow exponentially.
In Hello Quantum, Gershon sees another gateway for science enthusiasts to discover and explore the IBM Q platform.
“People may not realize it, but they have a quantum computer right at their fingertips,” Gershon says. “What we’re trying to accomplish with this game is to create an easier on-ramp for people to learn and get involved.”