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Derek Ham Named Director of CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center

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Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing

Carnegie Mellon University has named Derek Ham the new director of its Entertainment Technology Center(opens in new window) (ETC), effective Sept. 1. Ham is currently head of the Department of Media Arts, Design and Technology at North Carolina State University, where his research spans the areas of game-based learning, algorithmic thinking and immersive storytelling. In his work, he continues to investigate both virtual reality and augmented reality technology for ways in which these tools can expand the possibilities of interaction design. 

“You can tell a lot about an institution by its foundations, the way it was formed and who formed it. The origin of the ETC as a place founded between the School of Computer Science(opens in new window) and the College of Fine Arts(opens in new window) is one that resonates with me tremendously,” Ham said. “The work I do and lead in immersive storytelling has as much to do with aesthetics and visual communication as it does with responding to leaps in hardware and software that enable us to tell stories in completely new ways. The ETC is situated perfectly to continue its leadership in these areas, and so much more. I’m beyond excited to be a part of it.”

Carnegie Mellon’s ETC is a premiere professional graduate program for interactive entertainment focused on educational goals and creative development. Beyond the center’s interdisciplinary nature, Ham found himself equally drawn to its “un-disciplinary” nature.

“It’s interdisciplinary in the way it brings together people from diverse backgrounds: game design, film, animation, computer science, sound and light engineering, and so on,” he said. “When I say it’s undisciplined — and this is a good thing — the center and the degree program are set up in a way that allows us to explore storytelling and technology in the broadest sense here, outside the traditional rules of filmmaking and the standard practices found in the game design profession.”

Even where the center sits institutionally — under Keith Webster(opens in new window), the Helen and Henry Posner, Jr. Dean of the University Libraries and director of Emerging and Integrative Media Initiatives — enables playing outside the rules created by academic disciplines, he said. 

“Rules impact the way we design, and we use them to push designs further by what we do with them,” Ham said. “At times rules are followed religiously, and other times creatives will remix and remake them. But rules can also be broken, and sometimes discarded altogether. It’s all a part of the innovation process.”

And simply put, Ham’s vision for the ETC moving forward is “innovation with a capital I.”

“The entertainment industry is going through a lot of change right now. We are seeing a shift in consumer behavior. Film and movie theaters are not as dominant as they once were. Animation, video games and CGI-created content are all going through the big AI invasion. Immersive screens in the form of head mounted displays and holographic screens are being created at rates faster than the rate in which content is created for them,” he said. “I believe the ETC is a place to help tackle these challenges through its innovative practices of making.”

"As we continue to push the boundaries on the matters of storytelling, design and play, we do so in ways to make the world a better place." — Derek Ham

It's this environment of making that Ham said he loves most about the center.

“Students and faculty are not satisfied with creating mockups or simple wireframes that communicate ideas,” he said. “They are actually making tangible things that can be experienced, and it is in this making that we find new knowledge.”

Ham predicts in the next few years the ETC will not only be providing examples of innovative experiences on next generation headsets and screens but playing a part in creating completely new forms of entertainment and introducing new technology-infused human experiences. And he’s confident the ETC can take on some of these challenges in a way that is ethical and inclusive to all.

“The pedagogical approach I bring to the Entertainment Technology Center is one that places great emphasis on inclusion and belonging,” he said. “Oftentimes there have been great leaps in technology that have done harm to certain populations or left them out completely, without enabling them to benefit from the advancements they bring. 

“I believe both ethics and inclusion should be a core concern to any innovative and creative practice. Discussions surrounding these topics are not something to be done after-the-fact. As we continue to push the boundaries on the matters of storytelling, design and play, we do so in ways to make the world a better place.”

Prior to joining the faculty in NC State’s College of Design, Ham received his Ph.D. from MIT in design computation. He holds a master’s degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and a bachelor of architecture degree from Hampton University.

Derek Ham

Derek Ham

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