4 Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Entertainment Engineering

How fusing technology and fine arts is helping students build new creations and careers at top studios like Pixar.

  • newswise-fullscreen 4 Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Entertainment Engineering

    Credit: Lonnie Timmons III/ UNLV Creative Services

    Senior biology major Edison Smith in UNLV professor S.J. Kim's lab, where he and students are developing radio-based aerial drones as part of the Entertainment Engineering program.

  • newswise-fullscreen 4 Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Entertainment Engineering

    Credit: Lonnie Timmons III/ UNLV Creative Services

    Entertainment Engineering and Design students in UNLV professor SJ Kim's lab are creating Dexter, the world's first humanoid robot magician that does card tricks, out of 3D-printed parts.

Newswise — LAS VEGAS — What do reality TV’s American Ninja Warrior, Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson “One” stage performance, and gambling services corporation Scientific Games have in common?

They’ve all employed alumni of a one-of-a-kind UNLV program that blends scientific know-how and artistic sensibility to educate in-demand professionals and address research challenges that few are equipped to solve.

We’re talking about the Entertainment Engineering and Design (EED) program.

Created just a decade ago, the program was among the first in the nation to weave best practices from engineering and fine arts disciplines. Professors, students, alumni, and industry insiders say the program offers students the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of emerging technologies in the entertainment industry while also recognizing its increasing artistic demands.

So, what kind of opportunities are possible for students who pursue this major?

Here are four cool things happening right now in entertainment engineering at UNLV.

Robot Magician

Students and faculty are nearly a year into building the first humanoid robot in the world to specialize in card magic tricks.

Dexter — a life-size humanoid robot named in honor of the Digital Experience Lab run by College of Engineering EED co-director S.J. Kim — is made almost entirely of 3D-printed parts, which include a movable mouth, eyes, and limbs. Fishing line and tiny motors facilitate finger and other joint movement.

Voiced through a human operator (and perhaps one day autonomously), Dexter will be able to present audience members with a glass plate display on which an image of a playing card can flip, change color, and more. Creators are also collaborating with a South Korean magician to develop card tricks. Once complete, Dexter will be taken on the road to local schools, where the gender-neutral bot will simultaneously entertainment children while helping creators gather data to help make improvements.

“Our idea is to build a robot that’s social, can engage with people, and help robots become more integrated into society,” said team member Rahul Shelgaonkar.

The student team behind Dexter range from high school interns to graduate students, and include a college freshman whose work on the project encouraged him to switch from a graphic design major to EED. Their goal is to produce a low-cost solution for researchers and others who are interested in exploring entertainment aspects of robotics. Dexter, whose design is based on an open-source 3D blueprint program, costs an estimated $2,000 to build, while its commercial counterparts can exceed several hundred thousands.

Aerial Drones

UNLV students and faculty have eliminated one of the big drawbacks of drones currently on store shelves: They can’t be flown both indoors and out. That limits how drone technology currently is incorporated into large-scale entertainment venues.

UNLV’s entertainment engineers solved the problem using radio sensors. “Most other drones are based on optical sensors so when they’re outside in sunlight, they’re blind,” Kim said. “Other drones are based on GPS and fly high, so aren’t optimal for indoors and especially not in buildings with thick walls that the GPS signals can’t penetrate.”

Using the sensor software and computer hardware crafted by UNLV students and faculty, drone operators can fly multiple drones at once either indoors or outdoors via the click of a laptop or by carrying of a sensor, which causes the drones to “follow” the operator).

The hope is that the technology can one day be used by performers in large indoor entertainment productions, such as Cirque du Soleil, or to improve upon outdoor drone performances in large venues, such as the drone display during Lady Gaga’s 2017 Super Bowl appearance.

3D Projection Mapping

Last year, EED offered a class called Motion Graphics Design for 3D Projection.  

Unlike traditional projection, where a single projector is used to display an image on a flat surface (think your grammar school teacher using an overhead projector and pull-down screen to show the class how to work out math problems), 3D projection mapping makes uses of several sources to project an image on a three-dimensional object. Using specialized computer programs to break apart the image and then reroute the signal to multiple projectors,  the images — which are typically projected onto large sufaces such as buildings or cliff faces —  constantly shift and spin and change color to produce a mesmerizing movie-animation-like effect.

The medium is quickly becoming a popular phenomenon at large-scale events, such as art festivals, professional dance performances, and sports events including UNLV basketball games. When it all comes together, it looks like this.

Jobs and Internships

Given Las Vegas’s reputation as “The Entertainment Capital” and its proximity to theme parks and thespian offerings in California, what better place to establish one of the nation's first programs focused on integrating theatrics, technology, and design?

The program’s first class graduated in 2012, and UNLV recently checked in with some of the nearly 50 students who have crossed the Thomas & Mack Center stage since then.  Students and alumni having gone on to intern or work at behemoths including Universal Studios, Disney, and Pixar.

One 2017 graduate, Kevin Brekke, won an obstacle course design challenge for athlete reality TV game show American Ninja Warrior and went on to work for the show.

And Emily Black, a member of the first graduating class, flew across the stage at commencement with the help of rigging. She currently uses her engineering and fine arts background to design modular sets for large traveling theater productions, which require parts that can easily and quickly be reassembled in multiple venues across dozens of cities, shift into various configurations during scenes, and safely hide performers or other elements from audience view. She credits her EED courses with teaching her construction fabrication techniques and how to handle tools commonly used in her field, gaining an understanding of the innerworkings of sets for large productions such as Cirque du Soleil through class projects that included building a scale model of the La Reve stage, and developing vast familiarity with theater lingo — lessons that students in a traditional engineering program wouldn’t encounter.

“A lot more (theater- and entertainment-focused) companies recognize that it makes sense to bring in engineers right away so that they can weigh in on the whole process,” said UNLV Fine Arts professor and EED co-director Michael Genova, whose class roster for the program includes things like animatronics, stage lighting and rigging, and 3D modeling. “There will always be sculptors, painters, and other traditional artists. But the integration of art and science is the future.”

As of the fall 2017 semester, there were 21 EED majors, with 62 pre-majors. Genova expects the incoming class to be the largest in program history.

Interested in joining them? Visit the UNLV Entertainment Engineering website for more information.

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