Having returned to the world of academia last fall from a freelance career, I immediately entertained thoughts of bringing the two areas closer together. Why not? There seems no better use of resources and efforts than a good research relationship between the entertainment technology industry and the university. Many other technology industries reap massive benefits from these kinds of relationships: directed research and sponsored projects that yield viable products, long-term initiatives that act as incubators for innovation, not to mention the training/hiring benefits — nothing better than hiring the people who spent their education in research that you funded. In return, the universities get much-needed funding, new directions for research, and priceless career placement opportunities for their students.
But when I started looking into these relationships from the academic side of things, I found that they were almost non-existent. As far as I can tell — and if anyone can correct me here, I would love to know — no entertainment technology company (in the fields relevant to this magazine) maintains a relationship with a research university in order to develop new technologies or sponsor “blue-sky” innovation.
This is in spite of a number of new hybrid university research departments popping up all over the country that specialize in those fertile fields where the arts meet the sciences: Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, the Purdue International Center for Entertainment Technology, University of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute, and, where I teach, Arizona State's Arts, Media, and Engineering unit, to name a few. All of these centers focus on developing new technologies for entertainment and the arts in some manner: video game technologies, film special effects, sensor feedback tools, virtual and augmented reality systems.
Having personally had experience with two of these institutes, I find the only thing more surprising than the fact that entertainment technology companies may not have realized their potential is that these programs may not realize what potential the industry can offer them. More than once, I have become involved with research projects where the participants find themselves building systems for lighting control and automation from scratch, when simple knowledge of existing products could save endless time and redundant effort.
To find out why none of these programs has been engaged with industry, I started asking around on both sides of the issue. I wanted to find out why these relationships didn't already exist and if they were an untapped resource or a temptation to risky ventures. On the industry side, I got a fair amount of head-shaking and an equal amount of, “I'm not sure why we don't do this, but I would be interested in finding out.”
Anne Valentino, console designer and product development consultant currently working with ETC, had this to say: “Our industry engages in a lot of development but fairly limited pure research. Larger industries [that sponsor research with universities] can afford to bring an idea fairly far, decide it isn't viable, and then scrap it. When we push the technological edge, if the research is not conducted internally, we tend to partner with consultants who have proven expertise in producing manufacturable solutions.”
Tom Hough, currently of White Rock Designs and developer of the Sea Changer system, tells an interesting story. When he was at Vari-Lite a number of years ago, he was part of a project in which Vari-Lite partnered with Kent State University to develop a liquid crystal optics system that was unfortunately scuttled due to the release of DLP technology. It began to appear that there might be formidable reasons against these relationships.
But Hough also pointed me in the direction of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which serves as a potential model for research relationships from the architectural lighting field. The LRC accepts both development partners and sponsored projects that are analogous in scale to a viable level of development for entertainment.
Russell Leslie, the associate director of the LRC, said that the Center would be amenable to working with entertainment lighting companies on several levels. At the partner level, companies can essentially “buy in” to the Center. Partners would have access to all the resources and research in process, in addition to having a staff member dedicated to them as a consultant. At the sponsored project level, companies can invest in directed research with defined, measurable outcomes. Interestingly, the LRC also has experience with interest groups, where member companies pool their resources to address issues related to an entire field. Protocol standardization and development would be a good example of the possibilities of this.
In their partnerships with companies elsewhere in entertainment and the arts, other academic institutions work with basically one of two models: the short and the long. The short model — probably the more common — involves directed research with predefined goals. The Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon has a number of these types of projects in progress, particularly with the gaming industry.
The long model is just beginning to be developed, mostly a product of these permanent interdisciplinary institutes, involving a timeline of up to four or five years. This is a difficult schedule for many companies, but it streamlines the investments involved. If companies can be urged to think outside of the usual six- to 12-month fiscal cycle and closer to the cycle of, say, a PhD student, the potential for growth and development is unlimited. A four- to five-year outlook lets companies buy fairly cheaply into a long gestation process.
Thanassis Rikakis, the director of ASU's Arts, Media, and Engineering unit says, “The MIT Media Lab model cannot repeat; it was specific to its time…what is needed is a way for industry and academia to meet and form long-lasting relationships.”
I can't seem to answer my own question. It doesn't seem like there are any prohibitive obstacles to engagement between industry and academia in entertainment technology, nor does it seem a match made in heaven, but there are certainly models for productive research investments and no shortage of creative minds that can become involved early in their careers.
As the arts and sciences grow closer together in the ultimate version of convergence and technologies, like rapid-prototyping and micro-fabrication becoming more accessible, more avenues will open for exploration. In the meantime, these partnerships seem most easily oriented toward developing new applications for existing technologies, software applications, and interfaces, and — for those companies with enough forethought and resources — long-term exploration of new ideas.
Jake Pinholster is a professor of Media Design at Arizona State University. Comments and questions can be sent to Jacob.Pinholster@asu.edu.