Friday, September 25, 2009


--part three of a three part series
editor's note--As a writer, you learn early on that the better, more interesting your subject matter, the easier it is to write your story. From that perspective, I have been in "writer's heaven" over the past three days.

On Wednesday I reported on a press conference I attended featuring Pitt's Chancellor, Mark Nordenberg, CMU President,Jared Cohon and UPMC's Chairman, Jeffrey Romoff. It was narrated by "CNBC's" Howard Fineman, no less.

Wow, wow and wow. Those were some heavy hitters.

Yesterday, in part two of this G-20 Summit Journalists' story, I reported my findings on the incredible CMU Robotics Institute. Talk about having material!
But today's story will not take a back seat to the first two parts of this series at all (lucky you). So let's proceed now to the CMU Entertainment Technology Center (ETC for short) but there's nothing "etcetera" about it! 

When I first boarded the shuttle bus for my second and final tour of the day on Monday, I actually knew very little about what I was going to experience. I knew where I was going (the new development on the former J&L site)  but I had very little knowledge about what was actually going on there. All that I knew was that it was called the "Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center". Sounded like fun.

Upon arriving on the campus along the river (that I had driven past at least a hundred times before) our group was met by MK Haley, a thirty something "Associate Executuve Producer" as her card read. She wore an outfit somehow reminiscent of something the Beatles wore during their "Sgt. Pepper" period, but hey it's college, right?

ABOVE: This interactive entrance sign takes your picture and places it on the board. In the center it shows your picture on a live feed. So if you look closely in the middle you can see me taking a picture of the sign while the sign is taking a picture of me. Weird!

ABOVE: First and foremost this is "Steeler Country" after all. Let's make that perfectly clear.

ABOVE: Someone please tell me what movie this robot appeared's driving me crazy. Was it an evil robot in "Lost In Space"?

In the lobby was an interactive animated robot named "Quasi" that actually worked with a hidden person in the next room acting as the voice (the voice was distorted to sound more artificial). In the same area was a full size robot that was similar in stature to the one from "Lost In Space". It struck me as being sinister. I guess robots, like people, come in good, evil, etc. (See "Terminator I, II, III")

ABOVE: "Quasi" was a real show-stopper, dressed in proper Steeler attire. I didn't catch what number he was wearing.

ABOVE: International journalists Wang Shanshan (left) and Han Shu (right) of China Radio International interact with "Quasi". Shanshan is the Washington Bureau Chief, Shu a reporter.

Our first stop was to see a classroom in action in the "Randy Pausch Interdisciplinary Studio,"  so named for the now-deceased CMU professor of international fame. On this day the students were trying out their extemperaneous acting skills and having quite a rousing good time of it. Ah days of your life!

We next boarded an elevator and after the doors opened at our destination, it looked like we had stepped on board the "Starship Enterprise". The students, MK explained, had decided that this effect would help put them in the proper frame of mind for the "out of the box" thinking that their "ETC" training demanded.

ABOVE: Hallway treatment desined by ETC students. CENTER: Bulkhead of typical Starship. BELOW: Room with a view! No sign of Picard or Number One though.

While walking down corridors that were covered with iconic images from space movies and fantasies such as "Lord of the Rings", MK explained the inner workings of this one-of-a-kind school. "The ETC is very intense," she began. "We have campuses in Qatar, Silicon Valley and Australia, but you have to do your boot camp here."

Boot camp is a crazy-intense period where students, working in teams, have two weeks to design a computer game world. "Their only restrictions are no shooting and no pornography." The students are so inundated during boot camp that they literally live in their workshop areas. They spend twelve hour days and work seven days per week. They eat, drink and sleep computer game designing. This is how computer geeks are formed.

"If one person on the team isn't present, the whole team is marked as being absent or late. This teaches the students how important it is for them to be on time and not let down their co-workers. It also teaches the importance of teamwork."

ABOVE: The halls of the ETC are "littered" with iconic images everywhere. If you can't get inspired by're dead.

ABOVE AND BELOW: Iconic figures from "Lord of the Rings". This guy needs hair plugs bad.

We next entered into one of the classroom workshops. Students here were working on separate game projects. I was immediately struck by the strong Asian persuasion of the students although strength in computing among Asians is certainly no secret that I just discovered.

"48% of our students here are Asian," Mk responded to my query. "Many are sponsored by their governments. The cost per year here is $38,000. This is a graduate program and there are only about 150 students."

ABOVE: Computer brainiac and instructor MK Haley answers a question from China's Radio Network. I can only wonder how many millions of people heard this interview in China and how many billions more will read this in "Pittsburgh's Black and Gold". This type of a moment is exactly what the city was hoping for most coming out the G-20 Summit, not protestors shoving a dumpster down a hill. I wonder if MK could fix my "Blogger" formatting problems? Hmmmmm.

Everyone was very intense in their work, but there was a genuine air about the place that entertainment was being created here and that should be fun. But creating games that work and don't crash takes a ton of expertise that I certainly can respect..especially when your computer is equipped with airbags like mine is.

ABOVE: Where the rubber meets the road in computer design work. In retrospect, I should have kidnapped one of these kids and brought them home to fix my computer. Better yet, I should have "borrowed" a new one from CMU. They're everywhere!

As an example of the types of things that students design, we went into another room and had a demonstration of a program that recognized shadows and then reproduced them on a screen. All of the programs and games we were shown had  been designed by students at the ETC. They were most impressive.

ABOVE: An ETC student demonstrates how his shadow program works. He can get his computer to work and he's not even touching it! Doesn't say much for, ahem, you know who.

On a wall outside of another classroom were the names of ETC graduates and the major successes they had already had in their careers. Peeking out from behind a cactus plant was a full-sized replica of the "Terminator" robot. In another alcove was the "Robot Hall of Fame" that had C3PO, R2D2 and the imposing robot from, "The Day The Earth Stood Still." Now that guy really looked scary, but why the need for the tighty metallics, to conceal robot gentalia?

ABOVE: The ETC "Robot Hall of Fame". BELOW: I must admit that I was appalled that the "Terminator" robot was relegated to a separate area behind a large cactus. Why not just put him in a closet and be done with it! This just goes to show that even in the robot world sometimes there are major injustices done. I plan on demonstrating against this travesty during the Summit.

ABOVE: MK wraps up our tour while "The Batman" and a bemused Heath Ledger look on. I don't know why, but I just kept singing to myself, "Sargeant Pepper's Lonely, Sargeant Pepper's lonely, Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

The ETC was another example of one of those great things about Pittsburgh that most Pittsburghers aren't really aware of. I would venture to say that if you asked 1,000 Pittsburghers what went on at the former J&L plant site a hundred might answer "CMU's Robotics" but that would be the extent of their knowledge.

My hope, when I first decided to get credentials for this event (that was originally intended just for international journalists) was to learn some things about Pittsburgh that I could share with you, my readers. In retrospect, I feel that the past three days have managed to show me that there's a lot about Pittsburgh that most of us don't know about. From time to time it'll be a lot of fun bringing you more of these articles in the future. I hope that you enjoyed this departure from our normal sports coverage as much as I did!

ABOVE: As our group was leaving, two young visitors were just entering and they too were enthralled with "Quasi". Seeing the thrill on the faces made me realize how important entertainment is in all of our lives.