Merging Engineering and Imagination, Four Penn Juniors Turn Dreams Into Reality

By Marjorie Ferrone

It can take what John Nappo calls “blood, sweat and tears” to materialize a dream, but this is the price he and fellow University of Pennsylvania students Sade Oba, Emre Tanirgan and Gabrielle Patterson say they willingly paid in return for a finalist position in Walt Disney Imagineering’s 23rd Imaginations competition.

Founded in 1992, the Imaginations contest was created and sponsored by Walt Disney Imagineering, the design and development arm of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Intended to showcase how the synthesis of varying disciplines can create beautiful results, the competition encourages the conception of interactive entertainment experiences, Nappo says.

While Disney may or may not build the projects developed through the contest, it is an outlet through which executives can scout and nurture the next generation of Imagineers, who are responsible for the creation and construction of Disney theme parks worldwide.

Penn’s team demonstrated how diverse perspectives can produce dazzling ideas.

Nappo, from Old Bridge, N.J., and Oba, from Houston, Texas, are majoring in mechanical engineering and applied mechanics. Tanirgan, originally from Istanbul, is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in digital media design and a master’s in computer graphics and game technology. And Patterson, from Douglasville, Ga., is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in animation.

Although the team formed over a year ago, the intense brainstorming began in August 2013 to address this year’s Imaginations contest prompt: “design an experience that temporarily or permanently transforms [a large and densely populated] city for the enjoyment of its citizens and visitors.”  

After dissecting the philosophy behind the meaning of “transformation,” the members realized that, since people are at the heart of any city, the appropriate question was actually, How do we transform a life? 

“We wanted not only to show a reflection of the city but to show a reflection of [its inhabitants]. We wanted those experiencing the city to feel enriched and empowered,” Nappo says.

For their project, they chose the name Keşif, pronounced “keh-shif” and meaning “discovery” in Turkish. Keşif is centered around the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul, one of the most populous cities on the planet. Constructed over the Bosporus, which comes into contact with 10.4 million tourists annually, the suspension bridge unites the two continents of Europe and Asia.

“The bridge represents the fusion of two cultures — Europe in the West and Asia in the East. On the strait, and particularly on this bridge, everything collides,” Nappo says.

The interdisciplinary design and engineering project is centered on a local legend. It begins at the Maiden’s Tower, which sits atop a small island at the entrance of the Bosphorus. The team’s version of the myth tells of a young Maiden, locked in the Tower at birth to protect her from a fatal prophecy.  She is finally set free on her 18th birthday by her metalworker guard, who leaves a trail of tokens he crafted to guide her discovery of Istanbul. Imprinted on each coin is an image — a glimpse into Turkish culture.

Through these images, the team’s project aims at showcasing Turkish culture to visitors and citizens as they encounter the Bosphorus Bridge.

The team selected six initial symbols from the Maiden’s journey to carve onto sample tokens for the contest: a lantern, a whirling dervish, Turkish tea, a seagull, Turkish coffee and the Evil Eye.

To transform Istanbul while reflecting its people, the Keşif experience integrates kinetic sculptures, physical tokens and a mobile app. Visitors to the strait would see moving images beneath the bridge and could also interact with images on top of the water. Afterwards, they could receive a coin like in the Maiden’s tale to remember their trip and could replicate their experience at home through the app.

The two versions of the kinetic sculptures, one suspended underneath the bridge and many floating on top of the water, would create moving pictures by raising and lowering luminous orbs, which act like pixels in a 3D display. The bridge system would consist of a platform holding spools from which the orbs would hang by steel cables. The result would be moving 3D artwork that appears magically suspended. The team’s illustrative video can be viewed here.

Those floating above the water would use magnetic levitation, imposed by a giant superconductor platform beneath the water surface. Equipped with motion sensors, these sculptures could respond to human movement. For example, if the ferry passengers were to raise their hands, the lantern would glow, and, if they spread their arms, the seagull would flap its wings.

The team also wanted to make their creation timeless.

In combination with the mobile app, the tokens would be keepsakes through which visitors could continue their journey. Using the app, users could read about the Maiden’s story and about that week’s symbol, present a QR code on the app at ticket booths to claim their tokens, track their token collection progress and repeat the motion of the kinetic sculpture through an augmented reality feature.

The team’s video demonstrates the “magical experience” of Keşif, Oba says.

Nappo, the team’s leader, and Oba handled the mechanical design work for the puppet and bridge systems, as well as the physical manufacturing of the tokens.  Oba also built the electromechanical prototype of the interactive sculpture system. Nappo and Oba said that they depended upon skills learned in their mechanical engineering and engineering entrepreneurship classes at Penn.

“These classes teach you how to be open and honest. If you don’t like [an idea], you need to speak up and say so. It is not always the easiest thing to do but absolutely necessary in a project like this. You have to find a way to focus your ideas and hone in on what’s most important,” says Nappo.

Tanirgan and Patterson focused on the animation portion of the project.  Patterson developed the concept art and some 3D environmental models.  Tanirgan developed the mobile app with the augmented reality component and the illustrative video. They found that their 3-D computer modeling class helped them approach the challenge of visually telling a story.

The competition, which is open to American university students studying a variety of disciplines, drew 231 submissions last November. In January, Keşif placed in the top six finalist positions and was awarded a five-day, all-expense-paid trip to Imagineering Headquarters in Glendale, Calif.

The Penn team was able to network, tour behind the scenes and interview for paid internships.

“It was more than what I had dreamed of,” Oba says. “That experience of getting down deep into a company is not like what most people get with your typical sit-down interview or face-to-face interview. It is very rare that before you intern for a company you can get an experience like this, and that’s what this competition gave us.”

As a result of the competition, Nappo, Oba and Tanirgan were each awarded a summer internship with Walt Disney Imagineering, joining the Show Action Equipment team in Florida, the Animation team in Glendale and the Creative Technology Group also in Glendale, respectively.

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