Down the Rabbit Hole: the ETC at Carnegie Mellon University

April 16, 2011

On arriving at the Entertainment Technology Centre at Carnegie Mellon University I was taken straight up to the 5th floor to renew my acquaintance with Don Marinelli, the Executive Producer of the ETC whom I first met last year when he visited us at Salford. The lift doors opened and I was confronted by Robbie the Robot standing in front of me, guarding the flight deck of the starship enterprise.

Robbie the robot guarding the flight deck

Robbie the robot guarding the flight deck

Ha! The flight deck is complete with six huge plasma screens which show asteroids, planets stars – all the stuff you’d expect. One of the current student projects there is syncing up all six screens so that one can navigate through asteroid belts in space from the multi touch screen flight deck. Walking around ETC really is going down the rabbit hole: at the other end of the corridor from Robbie I spotted C3P0 and R2D2, down a floor and the Terminator resides at the end of the corridor.

terminator robot

The Terminator at the ETC

There’s something of a robot theme going here. Anthony Daniels, the actor that played C3P0 in the Star Wars movies, teaches here regularly as a visiting prof and the ETC has close links in with a number of areas of the entertainment industry with regular projects sponsored by, and graduating students going to Pixar, Microsoft and Disney.

So after meeting the inimitable Don again it’s one floor down and looking at some of the student’s project work. The students here are just great. Motivated, capable and confident they are working in a relaxed but busy environment, each project room gets decorated to fit their project and they live there for the three month duration. One guy had been sleeping on the sofa in their project room for about a month while coding for a project because traveling home was such a waste of valuable project time.

The ethos of the ETC is clear, technical skills and creativity are combined by throwing students into a fascinating mix of technical computer science and drama and improv classes. It sounded odd to me at first but the students get the relevance and as one member of faculty says, “we’re not about producing programmers, we’re about producing people that can work effectively in a multi disciplinary team, managing projects and communicating across disciplines”. It seems to work. Certainly the industry seems to like ETC graduates. I met one student who had just been offered employment at Microsoft and Pixar are regular visitors and love to hire ETC students.

On the second day I was there there were more robots: special mention goes to Quasi who was cute as a button but with AI that was maybe a little too good to be true? Sure enough I was led round the back of his set and Quasi is an animatronic character controlled via mic and touchscreen interface – another ETC student project and one that now has a spin out company, a fairly common occurrence here.

It’s a fascinating model for postgraduate training;  mixing up drama with coding and technology skills might just be how we can start building transdisciplinary workflows at our building at MediaCityUK and overcome the usual language barriers between technologists and creatives. I’m looking forward to seeing how we can work together more with ETC, it looks like being an entertaining relationship.

Batman and the Joker also hanging out on ETC corridors



  1. whew! meeting the Terminator has to be impressive, luckily he seems undamaged yet 🙂 anyways thanks for sharing this nice post.

    sleeping has to be considered as waste of valuable working time as well, especially when i feel motivated but can hold my eyelids closing 🙂

  2. […] by our tutor Ben Shirley‘s last post about the Entertainment Technologie Center I found fascinating the idea that […]

  3. Mr Ben Shirley, for sure you keep informing us for amazing things in the fields of art and technology!Every post of yours, brings more ideas and I just love it! Thank you a lot for keeping us tuned in this, and for finding ways to combine creativity with technology!looking forward for the next post..although I have a lot of thinking to do with the previous ones!
    And since I am from the field of music, what else can I say except.. that you Rock Mr Ben!

  4. Thanks for the kind thoughts, no pressure for the next post then!

  5. […] to produce game designers and “entertainment technologists”. It is a unique place that I have written about before. Students here study on a largely project based masters programme that aims to produce graduates […]

  6. […] about my previous visits to the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University here and here, a few things have changed since then so this visit was an interesting one in a number of […]

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