Tommy Lothian plays ’Mictlan: The Journey,’ on Tuesday at California State University, East Bay. Lothian and classmates created the game for a multimedia graduate thesis.
Tommy Lothian plays 'Mictlan: The Journey,' on Tuesday at California State University, East Bay. Lothian and classmates created the game for a multimedia graduate thesis. (Jane Tyska - Staff)
HAYWARD — If you think a master's thesis has to be a dry, unreadable pile of white paper, you haven't met Tommy Lothian.

A couple of times a week, the 25-year-old graduate student straps on his 3-D goggles, suspends horizontally atop a converted bass drum harness, and flies through the hazy orange sky of the Aztec afterlife.

"It's not really so much a game as it is an experience," said Lothian, part of a three-member thesis team that developed the project in a multimedia laboratory at California State University, East Bay.

His team's project, called "Mictlan: The Journey," will be one of eight showcased Thursday on the Hayward campus.

Others include a musical and folkloric journey across the Silk Road, a stereoscopic trip through a Mono County ghost town, and a cell phone opera.

Lothian's biggest innovation is in using the entire human body as a video game controller.

Gamers, hanging head-forward and with their feet strapped up at the same level, feel like they're floating through a lush and mystical Mesoamerican universe.

"We built this terrain and textured it," he said."We built the pyramids and textured them."

He and his classmates likely are the only master's students in the country who must pierce a jackal-like beast with jade stone, climb an active virtual volcano and avoid hallucinating over too much fermented agave juice before they graduate this month.

For Lothian, Cal State's two-year multimedia program helps extend some of what he learned as a radio and television broadcasting student at San Francisco State University.

The multimedia department, housed in one spacious room in the school's gleaming new Valley Business and Technology Center, is a mix of seriousness and fun for its roughly 18 students.

Big boxes of Raisin Bran and Lucky Charms line the top of the refrigerator, a sign of marathon computing sessions. And on Monday, a student was bouncing a beach ball from her cubicle.

Teresa Hardy, who had a career in the semiconductor industry, said she enrolled in the program because she wanted to shift into creating rich Internet applications and the sort of Web-based communities generally known as Web 2.0.

"I know we've spent more than 3,000 hours on this," Hardy said of her project, an interactive art installation. "A lot of that is the learning curve, the discovery process."

With a digital globe and tabletop touchscreen as its centerpieces, her team's project, called Net-Media Composer, shows the world through the news content people watch and read.

Team member Ryan Stirtz, who was motivated to go back to school after he was laid off from a downsized tech business, said the project is like a constantly shifting time capsule.

"It's interesting to see what people are looking at all over the world," he said, scrolling from country to country, where pop-ups showed the dominant news media images of the day. "We can go over to Japan and see if Paris Hilton is making the news."

And, sure enough, up came Japan and there she was.