of Ninja

“We’re telling these kids that it’s OK to go to Penn Engineering and be creative,” Dr. Norman Badler is saying. “Because tucked away somewhere in their psyche is an artist. When you read their application letters, it’s a constant theme: ‘I’m really good at math and working with computers, and I’m also really good at art.’ This gives them a chance to get a good grounding in computer science—yet let their inner artist flourish.”

Badler is the mastermind behind the DMD program, which was born in 1998, the same year that The Matrix came out. (All revolutions have their fabled timelines.) He’s a very personable guy —calm, bearded, matter-of-fact, reassuringly competent but with a gentle twinkle that hints at vast virtual worlds filled with strange virtual beings, most still unborn. At Penn, his professional avatars include: professor of computer and information science, director of the Center for Human Modeling and Simulation, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and now head of DMD. Because of his founding role, the program is based in SEAS even though its curriculum draws deeply from the School of Design (née Graduate School of Fine Arts) and the Annenberg School for Communication. (It also requires six classes in mathematics; four in physics, biology, chemistry, or psychology; and seven in the social sciences or humanities.) “It’s the nature of the beast that if you come forth with a project, you get to be in charge of it,” Badler says drily.

He is also a certified Big Deal in the world of computer graphics. Some 17 years ago, in the misty dawn of virtual reality, he created Jack, the first virtual human being. Although Jack left the University in 1996 (sold to a start-up company and now distributed by an information-technology-services company named EDS), Badler is still up to his elbows in virtuality. He was one of the founders of SIGGRAPH—Special Interest Group in computer Graphics—whose annual conference is considered the apex of the computer-graphics field. Today, the Virtual Humans Architecture Group lists him as an “expert adviser.”

DMD could not have existed 20 years ago, he acknowledges, or even 10. “There were not sufficient computational resources to allow students to develop projects,” he says. “We’re dependent on the PC revolution. There’s also a significant amount of commercial software that helps people do things that they couldn’t before.” And because of his pioneering background in the field, Badler is often able to get students the latest “proprietary software” from his industry contacts.

“He can call Ed Catmull, who is the head of Pixar,” says Calhoun. “Very few people can get through to Ed Catmull. Pixar gave us 10 licenses to RenderMan [software], which normally sell for around $10,000 apiece.”

But Badler wants his students to be able to do a lot more than just use these sophisticated tools.

“Our challenge as educators is to make sure that our students understand what’s inside,” he says. “In fine-arts courses, the encouragement will be on creativity, usually with existing tools. In engineering, we’re more concerned with what’s going on inside these tools, inside the software, and how to make it work to your advantage if it doesn’t do what it already comes with. To prepare students for a future career in DMD, it’s very important to give them the foundation to go outside—literally—that software box.”

“DMD is unique in that the industry is organically developing connections between art, technology, and communication,” says Dr. Joshua Mosley, assistant professor of animation in the School of Design. “And in the same way as that’s happening, we’re finding our way and discovering what those connections are. The program is flexible and rigorous enough that it’s adapting as the industry is adapting.”

Mosley and Badler co-teach a course titled Virtual World Design, in which students must create a 3-D, interactive virtual world. According to Amy Calhoun, the contrasting lecture styles have often been “most entertaining” to watch.

“Dr. Badler would start off by saying, ‘All right, here are the rules: You’re going to create a 3-D interactive world. I want three characters, three interactions—which can be a sound, them running into each other, some kind of interaction between the characters. And it has to exist in space.’ And then Joshua would say, ‘But I also want you to think about the fact that a virtual world could be a world of love or a world of pain.’”

One student (Alex Chen EE’04 W’04), she recalls, created a program that he described as an “exercise in pain endurance.”

“It was a virtual world, where wherever you walked in it, it would flip over, so it would make you motion-sick,” she says. “It made horrible noises, like fingernails on the blackboard, like screaming and howling and screeching. He said, ‘It’s an experiment in endurance of unpleasant things.’ Dr. Badler and I were like, ‘Yup; that’s annoying.’ And Joshua crouched down on the floor and proceeded to watch it for eight minutes, and when the project was over, he said, ‘That is so disgusting—it’s fabulous!’ And I thought, ‘And this is why you need them together—because the professor completely got what this kid spent all this time on.’

“They both were absolutely speaking the language of their discipline,” she adds. “And that’s why so much of this program is translation. Because it was only the DMD kids that could follow these instructions.”

“We’re still experimenting with the format that’s best,” says Badler. “But each year I’m just blown away by the capabilities of the students taking the course.”

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

FEATURE: The Cult of DMD
By Samuel Hughes