Inside the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center was founded in 1999 by drama and arts management professor Don Marinelli and the late Randy Pausch, professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design. An independent center housed in neither the School of Computer Science nor the College of Fine Arts, the Entertainment Technology Center is headquartered in a riverfront technology park along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, Penn., directly across from an old steel mill site that is now a mixed-use commercial-residential development designed to blend into the adjacent National Historic District. Its hallways are a pop-culture explosion (geek skewing sci-fi, where a life-size carbonite Han Solo statue leans next to Lara Palmer’s image hanging on a wall above a Blade Runner poster), the men’s room decorated in a Super Mario Brothers World 1-1 motif.

Mission and History

Since its first class of Masters of Entertainment Technology (MET) students graduated in 2001, the program has expanded internationally, with campuses in Japan, Singapore and Portugal, in addition to Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley in the United States. This international focus is a key part of the ETC program, which aims to prepare students for work in video game development, film animation or special effects, and what ETC-Pittsburgh Director Drew Davidson terms “location-based” work: design for theme parks and museums.

The latter is inspired in part by Pausch’s 1995 sabbatical with Disney Imagineering and sustained by Disney’s sponsorship of Carnegie Mellon’s Disney Research Laboratory. Associate executive producer Mk Haley and associate professor Jesse Schell also have backgrounds with Disney Imagineering, and ETC graduates have gone on to work for Disney theme parks and animation studios (as well as Pixar).

Alumni from the program work across the video game industry, from core to casual, from Bethesda to Zynga. In 2005, four students in the program, including 2D Boy’s Kyle Gabler, created the ExperimentalGameplay Project with, according to its website, “the goal of discovering and rapidly prototyping as many new forms of gameplay as possible.” 2D Boy eventually took one of Gabler’s prototypes from this project to completion as World of Goo.

Virtual Boot Camp

Building prototyping skills is the aim of Building Virtual Worlds, one of the program’s four required first-semester courses. (They call these four courses “boot camp.”) Students are assigned to interdisciplinary teams of four and are given one to three weeks to design and build a virtual world.

The course was founded by Pausch, who detailed its origins in The Last Lecture, a memoir written as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Pausch’s legacy, his book and the lecture it is based on, called “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” are key components of the program’s identity.

The Building Virtual Worlds course’s structure was established by Pausch that first undergraduate semester; after two years of its success, he and Marinelli successfully expanded it into the graduate-level Entertainment Technology Center.

“We want students that have skills already,” says Davidson. That allows the program to focus less on developing specific skill sets and instead hone in on the kind of project-based interdisciplinary work students are likely to encounter in the industry. The main focus of the program is to prepare students for work, and Davidson likens the MET to professional degrees such as a master’s of fine arts or a master’s of business administration.

In boot camp, students also take a class on improvisational acting, another class on topics like project management and effective presentation methods, and another on visual storytelling, which Davidson says is “a film class for non-film people.” There’s also education going on at the meta level, as these other classes often have students working on schedules that are slightly different from the regular schedule of Building Virtual Worlds, encouraging them to hone their time-management and communication skills.

According to Davidson, alumni range in age from 19 (fresh out of finishing their undergraduate degree when their peers are just finishing their freshman years) to 55. Sixty percent of students come from outside of the United States, and 40 percent of students are women. Recently, almost half of the students on every team for the Building Virtual Worlds presentations were women. Davidson attributes the near-gender parity to the program’s interdisciplinary nature. (It should be noted that though women’s representation skews toward the art side of the programs’ art/tech interaction, there are also women with programming and engineering backgrounds in the program.)

After finishing boot camp, students move on to the rest of the program, which is designed to give them experience in working on projects. Each student works on one project a semester. Some of the projects are sponsored by outside businesses, both in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Students have developed games and aided in research and development for companies like EA, General Electric and Lockheed Martin. They have also worked on projects with the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, The National Aviary and the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Beyond the Classroom

Students also have the opportunity to work on grant-supported work with ETC faculty, or on other government-sponsored projects for the Department of Defense. CMU’s computer science and robotics research is often DARPA-funded, and that connection is leveraged here, such as in 2004’s Augmented Cognition project.

Every semester, the ETC sponsors a number of what they call “pitch projects,” which are student-conceived and student-driven. A group of students form a team and pitch their project to the faculty. Students are given resources and office space, and they sometimes test their project demos on visitors. Student explanations — and their success in encouraging outsiders to, say, flail around with a Kinect in front of strangers — is another part of their education. It helps them learn the kind of communication skills necessary for successful teamwork.

That’s ultimately the goal of the program: not an alchemy that transforms artists into programmers or vice versa, but a structure that allows artists and technologists to work together, to learn from each other and to communicate.