Digital Media Design program boldly going where no engineers have gone before

Photo credit: Tanya Barrientos

A group of journalists from Canada, China and Germany recently sat inside the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s new motion-capture studio in the Moore Building, watching a dancer clad in black, swirl, dip and sway.

The dancer, Nicole Ward, a College freshman, was demonstrating how the marble-size sensors dotting her body and the 12 special cameras encircling the studio were translating her movements into digital images projected on a large screen behind her. Up there, she was represented by cords of colored light, and a computer-generated skeleton dancing a jig. The journalists scribbled notes, chronicling how a slice of the Silicon Valley has come to Penn.

The state-of-the-art motion-capture studio is the newest jewel in the crown of Penn’s Digital Media Design program, an interdisciplinary undergraduate major established in 1998. Based in SEAS, the program’s curriculum reaches across campus to the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Design to teach students communication theory and the fundamentals of art, in addition to engineering, to help them design virtual environments. In the program, students delve not only into calculus, physics, programming and computer modeling, but they also study drawing, writing and the cultural and psychological impact of mass communication.

“We want our students to understand why they are doing what they do, that media is about communication,” says Norman Badler, director of the DMD program and faculty executive director of the Master’s in Computer Graphics and Game Technology program.

He says students who graduate from the program excel in the rapidly expanding digital design industry as technical and creative directors, as well as animation specialists. But what is most important, he adds, is that the program creates digital design “generalists” who can apply their skills in fields that range from computer gaming to medical research.

“There are still major problems in this field to be solved and we produce students who can move comfortably in production and design, as well as research and development,” he says.

It seems both historically and academically fitting that the SIG Center for Computer Graphics is housed in the same spot where, in 1946, an earlier generation of Penn computer scientists gave birth to ENIAC, the world’s first general purpose computer. Joseph Kider, associate director of the center, describes it as a place where Penn students and professors are once again doing groundbreaking work, influencing the next generation of movie making, game production, medical illustration and educational technology.

Movie posters from recent Hollywood films such as “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Shrek,” “Ratatouille,” “Bolt” and others line the walls of the studio. Kider says the posters aren’t simply for decoration; they all are signed by Penn students and graduates who worked on the films.

Through the DMD program, students are not only exploring the cutting-edge of computer graphics for entertainment, but also for more serious fields of discovery. Badler says one of the most recent areas of study using computer graphics is “functional crowd simulation,” which examines how groups of people physically interact to one another in varying situations. An example, he says, is how a crowd would exit a building in case of a fire.

A different project recently undertaken by DMD students involved creating a computer-generated simulation of the lighting inside an ancient Islamic temple in Spain in collaboration with an art history professor. The professor explained to the students that in the Mezquita Mosque of Cordoba, completed in 987 C.E., lighting was achieved through flame wicks immersed in glass lanterns fueled with oil and water. To see how the light produced by those lanterns would have illuminated the space, DMD students learned about the archaeology and how oil and water distribute light differently than regular candles. What they found out is that the water served as the magnifier and the light cast down rather than up. They then created virtual lanterns in a virtual rendition of the mosque to show how the sacred building would have looked to worshippers in the 10th century.

When Badler lists the companies that have employed Penn’s DMD grads, it includes the leaders in the digital animation and gaming fields such as DreamWorks Animation, Industrial Light & Magic, Electronic Arts, Weta Digital, Pixar Animation Studios and Zynga. And now, he says, with the recent emergence of iPhone applications, his students have a whole new frontier to conquer.

Originally published April 8, 2010