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Inspired by Imagination

Quasi 2.0 is an interactive robot created by students at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) in Pittsburgh. The one-year-old (going on 12) has a busy travel schedule. "I've been to New York City twice and Los Angeles and the Pittsburgh Piratefest," the "spokes-bot" told a visitor at the Florida State Fair in February.  His eyes were mesmerizing, changing from green to yellow to pink, as he chatted with awestruck kids. When a newcomer stepped up to his podium, Quasi's face-tracking software took notice and his head turned. "Hi, I'm Quasi. What's your name?"


A team of ETC students brought Quasi and a four-player gaming table called the Jam-O-Drum to the Tampa fair. It was a preview of the attractions they've been commissioned to create for the upcoming Orlando World's Fair for Kids. "There's a real show at stake, so it's a very valuable experience, especially for those of us who plan to end up in themed entertainment," says ETC student Lenny Larsen, the producer/designer on the six-person interdisciplinary team. Their skills include software, mechanical and electrical engineering, fine art and multimedia design, theatrical production, scenic and lighting design, and musical composition.


ETC students have collaborated on more than 80 amazing projects since the graduate program began in 1999 as a joint effort of the School of Computer Science and the College of Fine Arts. One unique aspect of the ETC curriculum is that instead of taking a bunch of courses, students learn by teaming up on multidisciplinary projects. This year, ETC co-founder and executive director Don Marinelli became "executive producer," saying "the title better represents my role within the ETC since we function much more like a Hollywood studio than a traditional academic unit." In fact, several student-pitched projects have evolved into spinoff companies for entrepreneurial ETC graduates. At the same time, the school offers regular internships with such companies as Walt Disney Imagineering, Electronic Arts, and Dream Works Studios, all of which have hired ETC grads.


Faculty members with professional expertise in interactive art and technologies act as project advisors. Jesse Schell, veteran game designer and former creative director of the Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, oversees Animation Studio, Game Innovation, and Skyrates. Tina Blaine, the lead developer of Jam-O-Drum, an audiovisual instrument for which ETC students have created many games, advises the World's Fair for Kids and Give Kids the World projects.


"The Jam-O-Drum (JOD) has proven to be a versatile development platform for our Building Virtual Worlds core course," says Marinelli, referring to the first semester "boot camp," in which students do rapid-prototyping during two-week periods. The other "core courses" are improvisational acting, visual story, and game design.


The JOD was the centerpiece of ETC's booth at IAAPA Orlando 2004. "It's a perfect icebreaker among children and adults who may not know each other but for whom playing a game serves as a way of making introductions and potential friends," Marinelli says. "Equally important in our eyes is encouraging ETC students to create games that foster collaboration rather than competition."


While the ETC has an international atmosphere with students from Asia, Russia, and Israel, ETC Global launched in March with a program in Adelaide, Australia, and will soon be followed by programs in Korea and Qatar. "Global outsourcing in the industry is becoming much more about simple economics and encompassing cultural mores and points of view about new styles of animation, fashion, language, and such," says Marinelli. "Providing our students with a global entertainment industry experience and commensurate expertise is the ultimate goal."


Below are profiles of four students, all in their 20s, whose interest in interactive entertainment drew them to the ETC. Three are new graduates, while the fourth is a member of the class of 2007. They talk about their student projects, their career goals, what inspired them, and the future of the industry.


Seema Patel


Patel, 25, traces her interest in designing animatronics to her childhood fascination with Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean," which she made her parents ride with her over and over again. "I remember asking my mom, 'do you think the pirates' leg hair is real?'" she says. The answer "yes, it's real" came 20 years later via e-mail from an Imagineer browsing the school's website (www.etc.cmu.edu) for new talent when she came across Patel's anecdote. "I just thought, I'm totally at the right place," says Patel.


Patel came to the ETC with a bachelor's degree in physics and psychology from Harvey Mudd College and a master's degree in computer science from the University of South Florida, where she studied affective robotics. "I spent so much of my undergrad and even my grad education trying to figure out 'where do I fit in?' because I was just as interested in psychology as I was in computer science," she says.


When the ETC team creating Quasi was trying to decide which colors the robot should associate with different emotions, Patel's research developing a system to use color to express emotions came in handy. "When he's happy his eyes are green, when he's confused they're yellow, when he's embarrassed they're pink," she says.


When Patel graduated in May, she was already working at her dream job with Interbots (the word means "interactive robots) Initiative (IBI), an ETC spinoff company that she founded with three other students. It started when the World's Fair for Kids licensed Quasi as its official "spokes-bot." Pretty soon the new company was doing copyrights, patents, and trademarks, and putting in bids for contracts. "There's a very large possibility that we'll be getting a two-robot contract," says Patel. People in the industry have also shown an interest in licensing IBI's custom-created authoring tool. "Those are the tools people can use to create behaviors for Quasi to interact autonomously. "We designed them from scratch," she adds.


What makes Quasi unique? Patel says he's the first platform that combines all of these different technologies into one package: face-tracking software, motion detectors, IR sensors, voice recognition. "We want to make an entire experience where people walk away and think, "Oh my gosh, I just talked to something that's alive."


Mike Duke


"Any roller coaster, anywhere, my dad and I had to go and try them out," says Mike Duke, 22, remembering his amusement park experiences as a child. As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, Duke majored in computer science and mechanical engineering. A minor in engineering design was chosen with the idea of designing coasters, but when he got to the ETC, game design was a whole other thrill. "I'm going at the electronic game industry full-tilt and see how far I can go," the May 2006 graduate says.


"The Jam-O-Drum really took off two years ago when we opened it up to the Building Virtual Worlds class," Duke explains. "The games that were made in two weeks turned out to be basically as good as the stuff being made in a semester because when game play is good, it shows up in the first week or two of work, and then you just need to polish it."


Duke also did some work on the JOD to improve the input devices. Now the spinners are as fluid as the track ball on the bottom of a computer mouse. He also updated the code library so that the game code could read the spinner correctly.


His second year at ETC was spent interning as a game engineer and designer at Schell Games, a spinoff company started by faculty member Jesse Schell. Duke programmed three pinball titles for Disney Game Downloads – "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Aladdin," and "Little Mermaid." The games are downloadable on the Disney website and are available for kids to play on Disney cruise ships. He also had the opportunity to design the battle system and the interactive tutorial on the current titles for Disney International.


"I loved working at Schell Games, but I ended up deciding to come out to Electronic Arts because I wanted to see what a big company would be like," says Duke, who starts his new job as software engineer this month. He is thrilled to be working with the Maxus team that designed SIMS video games. "The title I'm working on hasn't been announced yet so I can't share that," he says. "But it's still in preproduction, so I'm excited about being there for an early stage of the project. There's a lot of design work going in."


Modupe Adeleye


Adeleye, 25, came to the ETC with a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering and a Chinese language concentration from MIT along with a desire to do visually exciting work that has an effect on people. "I didn't want to program some algorithm that nobody else is ever going to see or understand on the front end," she explains.


The ETC 2006 grad found satisfaction working on two projects for Give Kids the World Village, where she also volunteered during a summer internship at Disney. The first project was "animateering," a virtual puppet show that lets kids use knobs on a big book to swap characters, animations, and sounds to tell stories.


"It was cool watching the kids' fascination with certain buttons and what they did. For them it was ridiculously funny to make the characters' heads gigantic, so for a while they didn't touch anything else," says Adeleye, who realized that the tech side of making something might pull one away from what it is actually like to play it. "It was a reminder that a kid is going to like this because it's just plain simple fun."


The second GKTW project began this spring and is part of the castle's revitalization. Adeleye's team is creating a system to help keep track of the gold stars with the children's names that the "Star Fairy" hangs on the ceiling. "It's a powerful experience for the families," Adeleye says. "We're trying to enhance it by writing a story for the fairy and doing a show experience." One of her tasks was testing the mechanics of the newly constructed star-drop boxes. "After a child has put the star in the box and closes the lid, he or she will see a star fairy animated in a fairy window (themed computer monitor) dive down to the box as the box shakes and lights up," Adeleye explains. "Then the fairy travels through physical vines that light up along her journey to put the star in the sky in another fairy window."


Thanks to a "really cool mom," who enrolled her in Chinese classes in sixth grade and let her go off to a boarding school in India in eighth grade, Adeleye has a genuinely international outlook. Her first name, Modupe, means "thankful" in Yoruba, the language of her Nigerian-born father. "If you really want to get involved with what's going on in entertainment, you have to make sure you look everywhere," says Adeleye. "There's an opportunity to make theme parks in places like China and India, and they don't have to be the same as the ones we've done in the U.S."


Adeleye's career objective is "designing and programming interactive technologies for fun, engaging, and challenging experiences."


When Adeleye returned home to Rochester, New York, after three years in India, she found it hard to explain the experience to her American friends. A family trip to Disneyland – with its awesome rides and special effects – made her think, "Maybe I could actually get people to feel what I went through."


Lenny Larsen


Larsen, 25, is a professional scenic and lighting designer whose interests gradually shifted to interactive entertainment. "As much as I enjoy designing for theater, my passion is bringing the world that's created on stage out into the audience and letting the audience experience that world," he says.


This year, he earned a bachelor's in fine arts from CMU in themed environment design, a customized degree combining theatrical design and entertainment technology. At the same time, he completed his first year at ETC, working as the production manager and lead designer on the World's Fair for Kids.


"We're literally taking the project from conception to final installation," says Larsen, "and it's an immense amount of square footage (3,000 square feet) and a level of technology integration that is really pushing the limits."


Asked to describe the interactive entertainment being planned, he explains that the entire attraction, which will have eight Jam-O-Drums, will periodically switch into show mode. A holographic projection of Quasi will proceed to conduct the JOD orchestra. "The lighting changes with the music, so perhaps as one table is doing better, the lighting in that area gets brighter and more colorful. We're fabricating a lot of scenic elements such as music columns with color-changing center cores," Larsen adds.


Like many of his classmates, Larsen's inspiration is all things Disney. As a high school drama student, he transcribed the Disney animated feature "Sleeping Beauty," wrote a playscript, and made scenic sketches with the dream of doing a stage adaptation. By the time the Disney Company had granted permission, Larsen had graduated. He returned to his old school to stage the production, which got rave reviews and was videotaped for the Disney archives.


Last summer, he was thrilled to have the opportunity to manage a crew of theme painters working on "Expedition Everest" at Disney's Animal Kingdom.


"Eventually I'd like to end up with somebody like Walt Disney Imagineering and create interactive entertainment experiences," Larsen says.