Carnegie Mellon University

A Real Crowd-Pleaser

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Students Showcase Virtual Worlds

Building Virtual Worlds - God's Own

It's an event so popular at Carnegie Mellon that this year students created an interactive game for the people waiting in line hours before the doors opened.

The Building Virtual Worlds Show — presented annually by the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) — is a raucous stage show in which teams of first-year ETC students demonstrate virtual worlds they created in front of a live audience.

It's part of a course founded by Randy Pausch over a decade ago and currently being taught by renowned game design specialist Jesse Schell.

"We weren't sure if having an audience work together collaboratively at such a large scale was going to work," said Theresa Chen (CMU '09), whose team created a world called God's Own in which a village is being threatened with destruction by a broken dam.

An actor on stage created blocks for rebuilding the dam onscreen by hitting three drums in rhythmic sequences. The villagers — i.e. the audience — moved the blocks to the correct location of the broken dam using remote controls. A guest, pulled from the audience, was in charge of rotating the blocks for proper placement with a fourth, smaller drum.

While it was a big hit with the audience, the project was not without its challenges.

"One thing that kept coming to mind was Randy Pausch's saying about brick walls, that they are there to make us prove how much we want something," Chen noted. "We ran in to many brick walls in this project and I think it was our perseverance through it all that helped us finish the project successfully."

Another crowd-pleaser was "Shadow Thief," a game based on PlayMotion technology which uses light sensors to detect motion. The object of the game is to steal a priceless gem from a museum, but the museum is filled with lasers that can detect the thief's presence. Therefore, the thief has to use his or her shadow to maneuver around the lasers to get to the gem and then carry it away to the roof.

"As with any type of project, you always have to expect the unexpected," said Sarah McGee (CMU '09). "I learned I could improvise and retain my composure even if something didn't work exactly as planned. That's actually quite a confidence builder."

Lindsay Williams (CMU '09) thought one of the most challenging aspects of building a virtual world was creating what her team wanted in a program that they had learned only a week prior.

"I also learned that if I like a project enough, I can put in some really long hours," Williams said.

"I was incredibly proud of what the students were able to accomplish this year, and what a wonderful job they did of involving the audience in their worlds, on many different levels," said Schell, who hosted the event.

Chen added that while the BVW class brings programmers, artists, sound designers and 3D modelers together to build a virtual world, that's only on the surface.

"What BVW really teaches is the essentials of working in teams," Chen said. "Learning how to make people of different personalities work together effectively is what BVW is really about. That is probably the biggest impact BVW has had on me."

And, appropriately, that sounds a lot like what Pausch called a head fake.

Related Links: View God's Own on YouTube  |  Building Virtual Worlds Show  |  Entertainment Technology Center