Graduate students at CMU center blend technological and artistic talents


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Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) doesn't look like an academic building, but rather a geeky playground for very bright, creative young adults -- which in many ways it is.

The walls are covered with colorful artwork and graphics, and a group of motion-activated robots, including "Star Wars" characters R2-D2 and C-3PO, greets visitors at the entrance.

The ETC is a high-tech enterprise in the heart of the former steel industry at the Pittsburgh Technology Center along the Monongahela River. It occupies three of the building's five floors. There are workshop rooms, where teams of students design and realize their concepts. There's a lounge, where they watch movies and play video games, as they would at any campus hangout. But here, even this is course work: while they're playing, they're analyzing movie scenes and effects and how the games work.

Founded 10 years ago, the ETC is a two-year graduate program where students from technological and creative disciplines collaborate on designing video games, interactive displays and other creative ventures in entertainment technology.

It's the intersection of the left brain -- the logical, analytical side -- and the right brain -- the creative, artistic side. The students are a mix of technical and art and design majors, with a few coming from other disciplines such as theater and writing. They come from all over the world: This year, the majority -- 60 percent -- are international students.

The ETC was established to foster technological-creative collaboration. Like its mission, its co-founders also came out of the sciences and arts: Donald Marinelli, a former drama department professor who decided to focus instead on digital media; and the late Randy Pausch, a computer science professor whose famous "Last Lecture" drew a global audience. Dr. Pausch was the original creator and teacher of the ETC's Building Virtual Worlds course: He used to tell his students that they would be getting 10 years of experience in two.

  

At ETC, computer programmers don't learn to paint, and artists don't learn to write programming code. Rather, they learn to collaborate using the skills they already have. The program is designed to "get them out of their comfort zone," says ETC-Pittsburgh director Drew Davidson.

ETC students earn a master's of entertainment technology (MET) degree. For the first semester they take rapid prototyping classes, which teach them to solve problems on tight deadlines. Other courses include improvisational acting, audio-visual storytelling and critical thinking. They learn to work fast: Each of the virtual worlds created for tonight's Building Virtual Worlds show had to be completed in two weeks.

After the first semester, the students take elective courses, do an internship or co-op program with an outside business and complete a semester-long project. They also are sent to the West Coast to spend time at companies like Pixar and Disney.

At the end of two years, "They're comfortable with taking responsibility with their role as a team," Dr. Davidson says. "They're able to tackle anything."

Among the projects students are working on this year:

"The Winds of Orbis: An Active Adventure" is an interactive kids' game designed as an alternative to sedentary gaming. It uses a Nintendo Wii Remote and DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) floor pad, like the ones used with popular Wii and Xbox and Playstation games, to give them a physical workout while they're immersed in playing the adventure game.

Another project with a healthy application is "Patient Experience," an interactive display that will be used in the physical therapy/rehabilitation process. It works by giving patients feedback on their progress.

"Playground of the Future" is a joint effort between ETC and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. The ETC is designing a next-generation playground for tech-savvy kids that incorporates technology with traditional playground design. The playground project is funded by the Grable Foundation.

In "Poptics," a student team has been working with pop artist Burton Morris -- who's also a Carnegie Mellon alumnus. The goal is to take several of Mr. Morris' playful works and turn them into kinetic art. In "Red Light, Green Light," olives in a cocktail glass move when a sensor detects a face. In a gallery setting, the works of art will respond to spectators' movements, making the observer part of the art.

Mr. Morris says using technology opens up "a lot of new possibilities" in terms of taking art beyond the canvas. "We wanted to take my art to another level. You're bringing the viewer into the art and gaining a new experience you can't typically have with a painting. When those olives come alive, it's not just something hanging on the wall."

One of the student projects will play a starring role in this evening's Building Virtual Worlds Show. "Get in Line" uses interactive technology to entertain people while they're waiting in line before an event. The legendary long lines at Building Virtual Worlds are the perfect proving ground. "We wanted to create an engaging experience, and we wanted it to be an example of what they're waiting for," says second-year ETC student Lisa Brown, who's a member of the Get in Line design team.

This afternoon, people in queue can join one of two teams and play a competitive game, using their cell phones as controllers. The "Get in Line" programming starts outside McConomy Hall on the Carnegie Mellon campus at 3:30 p.m.

Roughly half of the ETC alumni go on to work in video game design; 10 percent to 15 percent in the film industry, working in special effects; 10 percent to 15 percent in museums or theme parks; and another 10 percent to research arms of tech companies such as Microsoft.

Nine spinoff companies have come out of ETC, with eight of them in the Pittsburgh area. One that is associated with ETC, although not technically a spinoff, is Schell Games, a South Side-based company that creates interactive 3D games and theme park attractions, and has worked with Walt Disney Imagineering and Pixar Studios. About three-fourths of its staff are former ETC students.


Adrian McCoy can be reached at amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865. First Published December 3, 2008 5:00 AM


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