Business Technology: Does Fine Arts + Comp Sci = A Better Future?

Carnegie Mellon University's new master's program blends the disciplines of the university's top-rated computer-science school with that of its prestigious fine-arts program to yield a master's in entertainment technology.
The ETC's work with FDNY on first-responder training for hazardous materials and terrorist attacks also involves "serious gaming"--the application of video-game technologies and skills for serious applications. Under the current name "Hotzone," the Hazmat project was developed by ETC students largely on the basis of a $50,000 donation from Microsoft and is now being used to train New York City firefighters. The simulation was shown at a recent conference of firefighter instructors and generated substantial interest from attendees who said they had seen nothing like it before, and believed it will allow them to train more people more effectively on a wider range of variables in less time and for less money. (Another BTW: The current producer of HazMat is Shanna Tellerman, whose undergraduate education was in fine arts as a traditional artist. Shanna worked this summer at Electronic Arts as an intern and was offered a permanent position but elected to return to ETC because of her commitment to instructive interactive technologies. Noting that she recently attended the Serious Games Conference, Shanna said, "This is what I want to do: create dynamic and customizable videos for serious applications."


"After all, the world has changed. We're no longer working with a defined set of partners who all understand our technology infrastructure and how to work with it. Today, your partners may change from deal to deal, if not day to day ... depending on what you need to deliver new services to your customers. And that ecosystem is only going to grow as we truly link rich digital media, entertainment, and other forms of content with mobile operators and other distributors."

-- Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, at the Nokia Mobility Conference, Nov. 3

The ETC also is enhancing an open-source game engine called Panda3D, developed at Disney's Virtual Reality Studio, and hopes to turn it into a powerful engine that will find wide commercial application; collaborating with CMU's CyLab department to develop a cybersecurity game for kids, complete with superheroes; and working closely with the state of Pennsylvania to try to leverage the enormous potential of this new wave of students to create and expand business opportunities and enrich the social life around the universities to help entice these creative and forward-looking young people to stay in the area.

Helping to keep all this moving forward is Jess Trybus, ETC's director of edutainment initiative, who is herself one of the eight students in the program's first graduating class in 2001. Currently, 84 students are enrolled in the two-year program. Jess noted that ETC had about 300 applicants for those positions, which she said is "significant for several reasons: a lot of our students are international and there is no formal marketing for the program; the students find us. Also, students with a singular focus in art or tech wouldn't naturally think of combining the two fields. And we're barely 3 years old." Current corporate sponsors and collaborators include Darpa, Disney Imagineering, Electronic Arts, Intel, Kodak, Microsoft, and some nonprofits.

Our world is changing around us so rapidly that it's easy for our views to become blurred or fuzzy. Volkswagen is getting into commercial banking, ExxonMobil is now in the business of selling its own brand of gourmet coffee, and Starbucks has built a very fast-growing business in selling music. What these cross-pollinated students at the ETC are demonstrating is that this new world that's rushing at us will require not just new skills--and new combinations of skills--but also new outlooks and perspectives. Think about what the business world was like just five years ago, versus what it's like today--and as we look five years into the future, all we can know is that the rate of change will increase far faster than most of us can imagine. New challenges and new competitive landscapes will inevitably require new ways of thinking and new sets of skills, and I would bet large sums that in five years the currently novel idea of blending computer science with fine arts will seem about as exotic as peanut butter and jelly. Will you and your organization be ready?

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