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Virtual reality class teaches flexible thinking

Students learn to work together on a single goal

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Things in any virtual world are not what they seem. So maybe it makes sense that a Carnegie Mellon University professor would offer this confession about his course, "Building Virtual Worlds."

He's not really teaching virtual reality at all.

Carnegie Mellon University student Ben Smith works on a game during virtual reality class. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

That may be hard to believe after spending an afternoon in Randy Pausch's master's level course, and watching as his students don headgear so they can interact with colorful 3-D creations like cows, barking dogs and butterflies -- each animated by students using special effects wizardry out of some Hollywood back lot.

But look more closely at who's doing the animating, says Pausch, and the course's true purpose becomes clear. Fine arts students are teamed with computer programmers, and engineers with English majors. All of them know their grade depends not only on how well their creations wiggle and talk, but on how effectively they, as students, communicate with each other while working on the projects.

"The course is about learning to work across disciplines," Pausch said. "If I could get them all to play shuffleboard and, in the process, get them to work across disciplines, I would do it.

"It turns out shuffleboard doesn't draw everybody's interest the same way as virtual reality does," he said. "They don't say, "Hey, I want to take a course in shuffleboard.' "

On just about any campus nowadays, there is talk of learning across disciplines, of why the left and right brain should be in sync and how technologists and social scientists need to understand each other's language.

Call it cross-fertilization of ideas, as some academics do, or just learning to be a flexible thinker. What's occurring in the workplace illustrates why the concept is in vogue, experts say. Disciplines once as unrelated as biology and computers are blending to form fields like bioinformatics and computational biology. Students know that pursuing their life's work may require them not only to jump between employers but to change careers, too.

Few places promote interdisciplinary learning as vigorously as Carnegie Mellon, which over the years has cemented an unusual campus marriage between the fine arts and hard-core sciences. The campus where Andy Warhol studied and where bagpiping is taught also is where two researchers in the 1950s received international attention for proposing that a computer could think.

Now, in Pausch's 6-year-old course, among the more popular on campus, Carnegie Mellon has found one more way to get students from both those worlds together.

Twice weekly, they gather in a lecture room in Newell-Simon Hall for a course that is offered through the Entertainment Technology Center, created in 1998 to bring fine arts and technology closer together. The course is part of a master's program in entertainment technology offered through the center.

Students in the class are divided into small groups to pursue five, two-week projects in which they will build virtual worlds -- pieces of art or entertainment with a planned scenario. A "guest" can enter and move about the world using virtual reality headgear and other sensors attached to hands and legs enabling a person to experience what it's like to go skydiving, live through a bull fight, or bowl a perfect game.

In making one such assignment, Pausch, 41, offered his students advice that is probably needed on a campus of chronic overachievers.

"Have some fun with this," he said.

"He or she who pulls the most all nighters on this assignment probably isn't the winner," he said. "It's the person who sits around with the mint juleps going 'Damn, our idea is so good we built it in three days.'"

"That's the attitude," he said. "Work smarter. Not longer."

"I want one activity that is so fun, so engaging, it makes me go 'Wow!' " he said. "Make something really cool."

The students usually do. They learn early on that to succeed, they must trust others with expertise and backgrounds far different from their own.

"It just forces everybody to work as one unit," said Ben Smith, 25, who has an undergraduate degree in English and does sculpting and other art work. "How do you as a painter talk to the computer programmer, who then talks to the modeler?"

Smith was a painter on one virtual world. He turned for help to teammates like Sam Yip, 25, who studied computer science as an undergraduate and knows about programming.

"I'll come up to Sam and say 'Those shelves should be darker.' And Sam will say 'OK, and he'll go Beep Beep Beep (on his computer) and all of a sudden the shelves are darker," Smith said. "I don't know how they became darker, but they're darker."

Half the students are in the entertainment technology master's program, and the reminder are undergraduates who have shown they are ready for the graduate level course. On a recent class visit, it was hard to discern the techies from artists by the way they dressed, or how comfortable they appeared with the technology.

Many arrive with a stated desire to learn about a field far different from their own.

Eugenia Leu, 23, holds an undergraduate degree in computer science from Taiwan, but doesn't want to sit in front of a computer every day. She is thinking about careers like theme park design or game design.

"I like working with people. I really like to use the technology to have fun," she said.

"I always liked to story tell," added Yip, who paired an undergraduate computer science diploma with one in animation. "This is the best place because I also like technology."

In one world, the guest moves through a farm and into a barn to eventually milk a cow. In another, the guest is led by a dog to a large cage of butterflies. The dog knocks over and opens the cage and as the butterflies escape, the guest is supposed to catch them with a net.

Building Virtual Worlds debuted on campus in 1997 as "sort of a drive-by cool experience" for undergraduates, said Pausch, a youthful-looking professor who came from the University of Virginia, where he worked in the school of computer science. But the course soon became part of something larger.

Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon wanted to pull together various innovative ideas, including the course, that were springing up on campus. The course became part of the Entertainment Technology Center, which is co-directed by Pausch, a professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, and Donald Marinelli, professor of drama and arts management.

Students in the class say the work is exhausting but fun. They put in dozens of hours to conceptualize the worlds, dream up the characters and props, and then color the pieces, animate them and coordinate the visual elements with sound effects.

The biggest motivator to work may not be the grade, but rather what the other group is doing.

"We're all working in the same space. You'll sit there and make a world and say, 'Yeah, that looks great,' " said Smith. "Then you look at the other guy's monitor and you're like, Whoa. The bar's been raised a little higher. And everybody [in your own group] will go back and make it better."

Perhaps for that reason, Pausch knows many of his students simply will ignore his advice that they not pull all nighters. The course is high energy.

And so is Pausch. Following him into his lecture hall is like trailing an entertainer ready to bound onto stage. He scrambles down a stairway and exchanges greetings with his teaching assistant in rapid-fire sentences, before passing through the doorway, a backpack slung around one arm and a wireless laptop in the other.

Pausch playfully banters with the class, offering those who need it extra help in computer programming, but qualifying it with a smile and a promise that it will be "R-E-A-L-L-Y gentle programming," he said.

To illustrate that forgotten details can bring a project down, he alludes to a missed snap from center that helped cost the Pittsburgh Steelers a game the week before. The joke is met with silence, but he doesn't miss a beat.

"Obviously, you were all too busy to watch the Steelers game," he said.

Some may land jobs creating interactive museum displays, conceptualizing video games or other similar work. Many others will not, and that's just fine.

"If they learned nothing about virtual reality during the course but they learned a lot about each other and their disciplines, that's a complete success," Pausch said. "Everything they learn about virtual reality is sort of gravy on the side."

Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.

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