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US School Prepares Hi-Tech Artists for World of Digital Entertainment - 2003-11-28

The Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is an incubator for talent in the digital age.

The Center is located near downtown on the site of a former steel mill. But the billowing smokestacks of heavy industry are long gone. In their place is a modern office park with low-rise buildings.

Students come here to sharpen their skills for creative jobs in hi-tech amusement parks, animation film studios, video game companies and museums.

"Interactive technology is one of the greatest changes that has occurred in the last decade or two. It is no accident that a lot of this interactive technology is being used to entertain people," said Randy Pausch, co-director of the Entertainment Technology Center. "It is also not an accident that people are drawn to something, they are more likely to spend time on it. So whether you are trying to entertain them because you want to make money by doing it, or you are trying to learn about what they are drawn to educate them better, having people who know about this is crucial."

The Center offers the nation's only graduate degree program in entertainment technology, jointly conferred by the school of computer science and the college of fine arts.

"There are certain technical challenges and creative challenges, but the biggest challenge is getting the two disciplines to work together," explained faculty member Jesse Schell, who comes from Walt Disney Studios in California. "There are so many different languages on these types of projects. Painters have a certain language. Animators have a certain language. Programmers have certain languages. People who build robots have their own language, and getting all these groups in a room together to create something that none of the groups could have created alone means getting them all to talk and to communicate with each other."

Students spend the first semester on required courses: Introduction to Entertainment Technology, Improvisational Acting, The Virtual Story, and Building Virtual Worlds. After that, aside from electives in such specialties as robotics or computer film editing, they spend the remainder of the two-year program on interdisciplinary project teams.

Mr. Schell interrupts one such team meeting in progress. Students Eben Myers, Ben Smith and David Jimison, who have undergraduate degrees respectively in English, art and cinematography, are brainstorming a rather heady topic: how improvisation relates to game design.

Mr. Schell points out that the assignment came from Electronic Arts, one of the largest interactive entertainment software companies in the world. "They had asked us to explore some new ideas and deliver that to them, and the form that they wanted was in the form of a paper," he said. So there is a client with a deliverable here. This is a deliverable for an actual company."

And, that real company is a place these students might want to work at someday. They value the client relationship, a connection with industry that energizes their studies.

But it's not all work. The Entertainment Technology program is about fun and games. In the course titled Building Virtual Worlds, Peter Stephniewicz expects to complete, as assigned, five different projects or about one new world every two weeks.

In his latest, Mamba de Amigo, players are transported to a cartoon-animated Caribbean Island where they find themselves among partygoers, dancing cactus and happy bobbing boats.

"You put on this head-mounted display, which is essentially two monitors that slip over your eyes and your head is motion-tracked," explained Mr. Stephniewicz. "So once you put on that head mount it is like you are in this virtual game world. And, as you look around you, your view in that virtual world changes. So, it really takes over your entire perception and you feel like you are really there. And, we motion track your hands. You are holding a pair of maracas with motion trackers attached to them so as you raise your hands, you see the virtual maracas in the virtual space coordinating directly to the motions of your actual hands."

Students build on these practical hands-on experiences, incorporate new interactive technologies into their work and learn from one another and from partners in industry. According to co-director Pausch, the most valuable thing students take away from the program is introspection.

"We often joke when we are asked, 'Is this just a video game institute?' The answer is no," he said. "Certainly video games are a big part of interactive entertainment. There is no doubt about that. And, I like to joke that about one-third of our students when they come in they absolutely positively know that they want to be in the video game industry. And, when they graduate, at least a third do go into the video game industry. Of course it is not the same third."

Mr. Pausch is confident that wherever the students eventually find work, they'll use the technical and creative skills they honed at the Center to keep pushing at the boundaries of the digital playground.