RACINE — When Charles Ricchio II went on a field trip to a mechanical engineering lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in November 2013, the work he saw going on there was already familiar to him.
Having programmed his own video games since he was 9 years old, the then-sophomore at Horlick High School understood some of underlying mechanics behind the project — a simulation of driving a Humvee.
“Whenever I see something like that I’m always curious as to how they actually structure their software,” Ricchio said last week. “I was impressed with how accurate the simulation was, so my first reaction was just to ask questions about it.”
He asked those questions to Dan Negrut, professor of mechanical engineering at the Simulation-Based Engineering Laboratory at Madison, who presented the project to Racine-area students. By the end of the conversation, Ricchio had been offered a summer internship at the laboratory, where he worked — and continues to work — on improving the Humvee simulation alongside professors and doctoral students.
Now a 17-year-old junior, Ricchio’s work at the internship and outside of school goes far beyond the computer science classes available to him at Horlick High School, 2119 Rapids Drive, according to Bill Heidenreich, teacher and chairman of Horlick technology and engineering education department.
“What Charles is doing is so far beyond the initial steps that we take; it’s phenomenal,” said Heidenreich, who was with Ricchio on the field trip.
A passion for programming
Ricchio had a knack for working with computer components and understanding their function from a young age, according to his parents, Charles and Barbara Ricchio, a retired firefighter and computer consultant and computer programmer, respectively. Ricchio’s father worked with him on projects to help him get an early grasp of how computers and machines function.
From there, Ricchio transitioned into programming — most notably at age 11, when he developed a passion for video games and began programming his own.
This individual work in designing video games prepared him for the work he did in his internship years later, work that he said was basically using more technical equipment and programming to design a video game.
During the internship, Ricchio specifically developed the interface that allowed him to create an interactive driving simulation, such as the Humvee simulator. He noted that before this interface the simulation could be rendered as a video afterward, but could not allow for interaction.
“What I did is make it so you could render the simulation in real-time in 3-D, and then you actually interact with the simulation as it was going on.”
Support from his parents
During the summer internship, Ricchio’s father adjusted his schedule so that he could stay in Madison with Ricchio, doing his own exploring while his son worked at the lab and on homework for school.
“I knew what a huge opportunity this was for him and I just wanted to him to be able to make the most of it,” the elder Ricchio said. “Plus I get to spend the whole summer in Madison, so it was fun for him but it was a blast for me, too.”
Aspiring to one day become a video game developer, Ricchio plans to go to a school where he can further that ambition, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Madison.
In the meantime, Ricchio said he plans to continue working at the simulation lab in Madison over this winter break and again next summer.