By Thomas K. Grose
ENGINEERS KNOW HOW TO HAVE A GOOD
TIME. JUST LOOK AT ALL THE ENTERTAINMENT ENGINEERING PROGRAMS
SPROUTING UP AROUND THE COUNTRY.
The fierce steam-covered head of a dragon rose ominously
from its berth on the stage of the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas
to spew real fire and sparks into the cowering, screaming
audience. Then, wobbling feebly from side to side, the head
snapped off and rolled into gasping onlookers as distraught
on-stage magicians watched helplessly. "That,"
Robert Boehm said to himself, "seems like a controls
For the next 14 years, as a mechanical engineering professor
at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV), Boehm went behind
the scenes at many of the city's increasingly lavish
and technically complex entertainment shows, but he never
forgot the dragon head. That is one of the reasons Boehm,
along with a growing number of educators, is convinced that
a degree blending art and engineering—entertainment
technology—can help to meet the challenge of a worldwide
parks, sports venues, and theater productions have morphed
special effects, robotics, sound systems, and animation into
a booming business.
The Las Vegas market alone is sustaining nearly $1 billion
in production costs for three state-of-the-art entertainment
extravaganzas: MGM Grand's new Cirque du Soleil "KÀ"
production, Caesars Palace's year-old Celine Dion show,
and The Venetian's "Phantom of the Opera."
The video game industry, nonexistent 25 years ago, now commands
an amazing $18 billion market worldwide. It's estimated
that 145 million Americans play computer and video games.
The industry has the potential to add 5,000 new jobs annually.
As Americans and the rest of the world have come to expect
entertainment at every level of society, from shopping malls
to museums, the staggering technical challenges have fueled
the need for a hybrid artist/engineer. And for those schools
looking for guidance in this new field, there is a star to
You can't get much farther psychologically from Las
Vegas than Pittsburgh, but that is exactly where new ground
in entertainment technology education was broken. Five years
ago, Carnegie Mellon University fine arts professor Don Marinelli
and computer science professor Robert Pausch started the two-year
master of entertainment technology degree program. "Don
Marinelli is spectacular, but he is everything I am not,"
Pausch says. "And that's a tangible signal to
our students that you should be able to work with people who
are radically different than you are."
Pausch says the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) is
merely the most aggressive example of Carnegie Mellon's
history of putting disciplines together in unusual ways. "We
have some of the best fine art and best technology education
in the world under one roof," he says, "so when
there are all these signals in the world to put those together,
we walk the walk instead of talking the talk."
The basic mantra of the program is: Everybody is an equal
partner. Of the roughly 50 students admitted each year, half
are from the technology field and half from the nontechnology.
"We created something that forces artists and engineers
to work together," Pausch says.
For starters, that means no traditional methods. No lectures.
No regular classes. No separation. The curriculum is purely
project-based. Four semesters long, the program's courses
are highly unconventional. They include: Visual Story, learning
the basics of visual language from film and how it applies
to interactive media; Introduction to Entertainment Technology,
a dramatic analysis of video games; and Building Virtual Worlds,
five different team challenges in building a virtual reality
project. Field trips include the Cruise to Nowhere, a three-day
boat trip simulating total immersion in an experience that
students must evaluate in an essay; and a trip to California
to visit entertainment big shots Industrial Light and Magic,
Disney Imagineering, and Rock Star Entertainment.
For the last three semesters, students are assigned to teams
of four, five, or six students with a faculty member in which
their only goal is completing a big project. This, Pausch
and Marinelli say, is the heart of the whole course. "You
give them a problem that is so hard it requires all of their
skills to solve it, and you give them no time. At that point,
they're in the foxhole together," Pausch says.
They must produce an entertainment experience ready to go,
work that stands alone.
Two of the projects are HazMat, which uses video-game methods
to simulate tactical situations in training the New York City
antiterrorism teams, and the Augumented Cognition Group, which
involves creating a wireless virtual environment to enhance
foot soldiers' experience in combat.
In addition to an aggregate grade and individual grades on
the projects, students meet with faculty members three times
each semester for feedback on their attitudes, their interaction
with other students in the program, and the way they present
themselves. "We tell them, ‘This is what your
boss would say to his or her spouse about you,' "
The ETC degree program achieves virtually full employment,
with the giant video game company Electronic Arts hiring almost
40 percent of the graduating class in the past two years,
a fact that Pausch says underscores the program's focus
on employment rather than faculty research. ETC's good
relationships with industry leaders Electronic Arts and Disney
Imagineering include written agreements for hiring at least
10 interns a year. While more than 50 percent of ETC graduates
work in the video-game industry, the remainder work in museums,
higher education, and nonprofit fields. "They apply
the principles of creating entertainment content toward noble
goals as well as commercial goals," Pausch says.
Location, Location, Location
high-heel walking distance of the "Strip" in Sin
City, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas is hoping to establish
an undergraduate degree in entertainment technology for two
reasons: A ballooning market for designers grounded in technical
problem solving, and elevation of the 1,500-student university
to national recognition. "Las Vegas is probably the
biggest lab for entertainment engineering in the country,"
says Dean Eric Sandgren, who himself will teach a visualization
course. Mechanical engineering professor Boehm, an ardent
supporter of the courses being offered at UNLV, agrees. "Theater
people believe anything can be done, and engineers anticipate
problems, so putting them together gives you the best of both
"The technology is enormous," says Anthony Ricotta,
production manager for the world-famous "O" Cirque
du Soleil show at the Bellagio Hotel in Vegas. A 1.5 million-gallon
pool with an internal elevator that can rise 25 feet in eight
seconds was built to specs for the jaw-dropping show. "Today's
scenic elements have to be such a big ‘Wow,' no
one really knows whether they will work until they're
built." That, Ricotta says, is where entertainment and
engineering merge for the future. "Theater engineering
has always been clunky and noisy, when it should look like
Support for the UNLV program and others like it is strong
within the entertainment industry. Kent Bingham, president
and CEO of Entertainment Engineering Inc. of Burbank, Calif.,
helped formulate the program's curriculum and has been
a guest lecturer. A Berkeley-trained civil engineer, Bingham
was chief structural engineer for Disney's Epcot Center
and has worked on some of Las Vegas' biggest lures.
Bingham says the program at UNLV illustrates the most important
lesson an engineer can learn. "Imagination is like a
sleeping giant which, when awakened, lets you do things that
normal architects and engineers cannot."
At the University of Missouri-Rolla, a new program combining
the performing arts and engineering will enroll its first
students in fall 2005. Dean Robert Mitchell thinks the program
could draw more students into engineering, including women.
"They follow their passions," he says of prospective
students, citing a student who loved calculus and explosives
who came to him and asked if the program would cover special
effects. "Edison would be overwhelmed," he laughs.
Interdisciplinary programs such as SUDAC at Stanford University,
the MIT Media Laboratory, and Georgia Tech's Information,
Design & Technology are all highly regarded and thriving.
Areas of specialty such as animation, digital media, gaming,
themed entertainment, and virtual reality are targeted by
programs at the University of Pennsylvania, Rensselaer, University
of Southern California, and Purdue, among many others.
As the worlds of entertainment and technology expand and
merge, opportunities for engineers grow exponentially. Jim
Seay, the 44-year-old president and owner of theme-park ride
and design firm Premier Rides in Millersville, Md., is a at
the forefront of this new universe. A Cornell engineering
graduate, he worked in the aerospace industry until the bubble
burst in the '80s and designers of cruise missiles moved
to Disney to become Imagineers. Seay hooked up with the company
that developed Six Flags theme parks and 10 years ago started
his own firm, a wildly successful venture that has brought
him international recognition for, among other designs, the
"Return of the Mummy" ride at Universal Studios
in Orlando and in Hollywood. Using the same technology used
in futuristic magnetic levitation trains, the ride's
linear induction motors blast riders 1.5Gs uphill through
2,000-degree fire, with space-age robotics, ultraviolet black
light technology, projected CGI animation, and advanced animatronics.
Seay applauds the increase in entertainment technology training.
"Those who aspire to that kind of degree have the ability
to be creative technical leaders," he says. Seay's
firm is part of the Cornell internship program, and some of
the students have been hired for his unique enterprise. "We're
up there interviewing right alongside IBM," Seay notes,
"and our salaries are competitive." The world
is changing by the second, Seay says, citing his daily instant
messages to his newly opened office in Beijing. "It's
hard to comprehend the development happening there, and how
educated the Chinese are about entertainment possibilities."
The future for the right engineers in a country of more than
a billion people? That, as they say, is entertainment.
Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington,