From its hallowed history to its Ivy League status, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) distinguishes itself in many respects. Perhaps not surprisingly, its founder Benjamin Franklin advocated for a practical and innovative curriculum with a multidisciplinary focus. This pedagogical approach has guided Penn’s programs to international preeminence, and its legacy is evident in the Computer Graphics and Game Technology (CGGT) graduate program today.
Aspiring animators, visual effects artists and game designers from computer science backgrounds leverage the CGGT master’s degree program to blend art and entrepreneurship with technology in ways that make them among the most highly coveted of all graduates in the field. Dr. Stephen Lane has directed the program since its inception; his unique background, encompassing both the academic and commercial worlds, underscores Penn’s mission for a broad yet rational approach to education. We caught up with Dr. Lane for our latest Q&A… we hope you enjoy! (This interview was done via phone & has been edited minimally for clarity).
ACR: Steve, you’re a mechanical aerospace engineer by education, an entrepreneur by trade, and Professor and Director of Penn’s Computer Graphics & Game Technology master’s program. How did this considerable CV come to fruition?
Stephen Lane: I studied mechanical aerospace engineering as a student and went to Princeton for my Ph.D. where I focused on controls and dynamics and built a flight simulator. Following graduation, I thought everything had already been done in aerospace so I turned my attention to robotics and A.I. and co-founded a company that sought to commercialize robotic skill acquisition. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t the right time for it back then (in the early ‘90s). So we took our technology, founded a new company (Katrix) and focused on games and interactive character animations. We had a lot of contracts; we created a virtual reality game for Hasbro and we developed a ride for Disney (Ride the Comix). Eventually, I founded a new company which commercialized behavioral animation technology and then I began teaching at Penn.
ACR: Shortly after joining Penn’s Computer and Information Science Department as an Adjunct Professor, you developed the CGGT Master’s program. What was your impetus in doing so?
SL: I was teaching a course in computer animation and virtual world design here at Penn. We had a lot of Ph.D. students come and go so I could see there was a need for a Master’s program. I put it together with a single question in my mind: ‘what do companies want?’ My intent was that our graduates would become ideal employees- the type I would want to hire. That’s why our curriculum encompasses various aspects from core graphics and animation to the fine arts, 3D modeling, visual storytelling, and business and entrepreneurship courses. Our grads come out very well prepared to work at the center of the creative spectrum.
ACR: Given the scope of the program and the ever-changing technological landscape, how do you decide what courses and skillsets are integral to your students’ success?
SL: That’s a good question. Because of my entrepreneurial background, I try to keep a foot in industry and a foot in academia to guide the curriculum. We look at the latest research and then put theory to practice. We attend conferences like Siggraph and GDC, do our own research and solicit alumni feedback for ideas and course topics. I’m surrounded by such talented people here; because the program is a decade old, we have a large network and alumni base. I always think in terms of the practical aspects of what I teach and how industry might use it, so courses are structured along those lines. Graduates come out with working, hands-on knowledge. For instance, they might have to program a particle system in C++ but then recreate it in Houdini or Maya or MotionBuilder, and see how it’s reflected. This is very much a core idea of our program.
ACR: Every CGGT student takes the Game Design Practicum course which, as its name suggests, is the culmination of their studies in a single project. Tell us briefly about it.
SL: Most of the courses they take throughout the program are on the technical side. I provide assignments and they all contain different building blocks, so to speak, that they will need for their careers. The Game Design Practicum is intended for them to apply all of those building blocks and develop something original from a creative point of view. I bring more of my commercial experience into that class, as well. Students typically self-organize into groups of three and they start by brainstorming, then writing a design document, then putting together a project schedule and finally executing on it. They become fully invested in these projects because it’s their own original work.
ACR: Testament to the success of the program are the many alumni who are on the leading edge of the industry.
SL: They’re really spread out and it makes me proud to see where they go. Most of our alumni work for either big studios including Pixar, Blue Sky, Dreamworks, Double Negative, or they’re at game companies like Microsoft Game Studios and EA. Because the program is hosted within Penn’s computer science department, most of our graduates become technical directors which puts them in the center the industry. They are able to get more creative and have a lot of flexibility in their careers.
ACR: There are so many technological advancements that will greatly impact your students’ work. One area that remains promising yet elusive is virtual reality. What are the shortcomings of VR that need to be answered?
SL: They’re now rediscovering a lot of the same things we did back in the ‘90s. For virtual reality to go beyond 3D TV- which didn’t succeed because the experience wasn’t all that different- I think there has to be some type of application besides simply looking at a scene. It has to be something like telepresence or non-gaming related. Why do people go to live sporting events? Because being there makes it a special experience. If a VR interface can capture that experience, then people might be willing to wear that head mounted display.
ACR: That said, what technologies are you most keen to see come to fruition or evolve in the next few years?
SL: I’m most excited about augmented reality and the ability to overlay computer imagery on real world scenes. Thanks to smartphones, we’ll continue to see new and interesting (AR) applications. There are also new light field cameras and displays which reflect how light propagates within an image so that you can do all the focusing and depth of field after you take the picture; on the display end, you would focus on things in the foreground or background with your eyes and feel like you’re actually in the scene itself. With higher resolutions, that technology is going to become incredibly realistic and very exciting.
ACR: Steve, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today about your own career and Penn’s CGGT master’s program. Thanks so much.
SL: Thank you, Bonnie!