Posts Tagged ‘Imagineering’

Remembering Randy Pausch

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

Hey there peoples,

I don’t know if you heard about this or not — apparently it became something of a major boom in the States — but this professor from CMU was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and just recently died.  But the reason it became a boom was because of the lecture he gave, which you can see on YouTube here: .  Apparently over 10 million people have watched it.  It’s a great video, you should watch it too.

Apparently the news of this video peaked around April, when ABC news did an hour-long show all about him and his life (you also can find that on YouTube, split into 5 parts: [part1, part2, part3, part4, part5]).  He also turned it into a book “The Last Lecture” that apparently became pretty popular.

Anyway, I knew him.  Not well, but he came to UNC to give a talk while I was there and I think I gave him a demo of my painting system Ph.D. work.  He probably wouldn’t have remembered me, though he might have remembered my demo.  “The rest of the story” that you won’t learn from watching the YouTube videos or ABC special is that while at UNC, his visit was arranged by our then “Demo Coordinator”  Jai Glasgow (though she preferred the title “Demo Queen”).  She was also the one who arranged my giving him a demo (and the other demos that were shown during his visit too.)  After that first visit, Dr. Pausch came back a few times, and I think most of us didn’t really know why — he didn’t give any talks or anything on the follow-up visits.  But it wasn’t long before the news came out that we were going to be losing our “Demo Queen” because she decided to marry Dr. Pausch and go with him back to Pittsburgh.  You can see her briefly in the YouTube video above, and more in the ABC special.  We were sad to lose her because she was great at her job and always very energetic and positive.  And as I remember it the coordinator right before her had been horrible.  This one was the “Wicked Demo Witch of the West”.  She was famous for ringing this horribly loud bell to signal the time to switch to the next demos, and one time she sent an email to all the graduate students saying that she was disappointed in our performance, requiring that we all fill out a self-evaluation form — including a mini-essay question about what we could do to improve our demo giving in the future.  If you failed to turn in your self-evaluation form in 1 week you were to be reported!  Eek!  I think no one did it.  (I’ll be reported to whom exactly??)  When Jai came in and took her place there was much rejoicing.

So that’s interesting back-story #1.   The other interesting back-story is that Dr. Pausch is was one of the main guys behind the short-lived Aladdin virtual reality ride at Disney World.  We had the luck of stumbling upon the trial run of the system when we went to Disney as a family in the early 90′s.  I recall there was an inconspicuous sign up somewhere in the middle of the pavilions at Epcot.  One of us noticed it so we went to check it out.  It was so cool.  You put on a VR helmet and sat on something shaped sort of like a motorcycle, and then suddenly it was like you were riding a magic carpet through the Aladdin movie.  My computer I had at college at the time was an IBM 386 XT clone with 4-color graphics, so I was blown away by how perfect the cartoony Aladdin world looked in this VR ride.  I had never seen anything like it.  I was in college then, but I remember thinking “man this is the kind of stuff I want to do when I grow up”.  I think I even asked them how to apply for a job.

When it did come time to graduate I searched for a job in the video game industry, which was the only kind of job I could think of that would let me do computer graphics for a living.  I even got one offer (amidst numerous rejections).  The offer was from a company in Boston that made NASCAR video games.  But the salary was like half of what I was offered at another place, Visix in Virginia.  The whole operation in Virginia just seemed to have a lot more going for it.  The NASCAR guys themselves were kind of underwhelming, and the impression I got was that their plan was to just keep cranking out more of the same NASCAR game as long as they could.  I was much more impressed by the folks at Visix.  Both their vision and the intelligence of the developers I met there.  It was a very talented bunch of folks, even if they weren’t doing graphics.  And they took me out to a fancy lunch and put me in a fancy hotel.  That certainly didn’t hurt. :-)   None of that from the NASCAR folks.  So I went with Visix.

But Randy Pausch’s Aladdin demo defnitely stayed in my subconscious.   That was the kind of thing I really wanted to do, but it seemed impossible to get from being an electrical engineering grad with no real knowledge about computer graphics to being a Disney Imagineer inventing new and cool graphics technologies.  (I don’t recall but I’m pretty sure I did send them my resume and got rejected as one would expect.) The NASCAR game place was the closest thing it seemed I could manage, but it was a far cry from Disney Imagineering.  So I forgot about the whole computer graphics thing for a while.

Till one day I had a chance to meet with my friend Leo Chan.  Leo and I had been dorm buddies in Shinkoyasu, and we were the best damn buskers Yokohama has probably ever seen.  (The former is completely true, and the latter is almost completely true in my dreams)  The odd thing is, I think I met up with Leo in Pittsburgh.  I don’t recall how that came about, since Leo lived in Canada, and I lived in Virginia, but for some reason we met up in Pennsylvania.   And it was there, next to the very campus where the man behind the Aladdin demo was professoring, that Leo told me about the job he was doing at SideFX software, a computer graphics company.  SideFX made (and still makes) some software called Houdini that’s used to make 3D graphics effects for movies.  He told me about the cool things he had worked on like an “inverse kinematics solver”.  And I heard that and thought — whoa!  For two reasons:  Wow–there are graphics jobs that aren’t games?!  and also Hey! Inverse kinematics?!  I know something about that — that’s stuff I did in my electrical engineering studies!  It turns out most of what you learn studying robotics in the electrical engineering department is useful for doing 3D graphics too.   And I had liked that stuff a lot.  So that nailed it for me.  I could see the path.  And after three years in the non-graphics world I had pretty much learned the ropes and was getting a little bored with it.  So I would go to grad school to learn what I didn’t learn in college, then I’d go find a cool job like Leo’s.

So that’s pretty much what I did.  And it’s worked out pretty well so far.

And that’s my Randy Pausch story.  That Aladdin ride for me was a critical point in my life, I think.  Nothing happened right at the moment, but because it was a sort of “behind the curtain” event, it really stuck with me.  The demo was being staffed by technical folks directly involved with the project, so I was able to ask them a few quick questions and see that the people making these things are real, and maybe not so different from me.  It wasn’t till much later when I was in grad school that I heard of Randy, and it was even later still that I learned he had been a big part of that Aladdin ride.  But knowing a bit about Randy (and Disney) I’m pretty sure that without him there never would have been such a public demo.

Research-wise, I can’t say I’ve actually read a single paper of his.  I’m actually not that interested in the area he was most expert in (nor am I really sure exactly what it was that he was expert in other than “VR”).  But he was always, ALWAYS enthusiastic about what he was doing, just like you can see in the video.  And that enthusiasm was truly infectious.   It affected my life in ways that I didn’t find out about till much later, and as you can see from the video, he’s had a much more direct impact on many many more folks.  I think it’s a great lesson that it’s not necessarily what you’re supposed to be doing that matters but what you manage to do along the way.  I mean nominally he’s a resarcher, so he’s supposed to be famous for his research.  But I don’t think that’s why he’ll be remembered.  It’s what he did along the way.  I think his whole career was sort of a “head-fake,” to use his terminology.

I’m at a bit of a life cross-roads, now.  The current job will end in another year and Elly and I are trying to decide what to do next.  The one thing I find unsatisfying about my current job is that I don’t feel like what I do is helping anyone.  But watching Randy really makes me think that maybe I should try to become a professor.  I had pretty much decided that all the scraping for grants in the academic life was too much trouble just to get the freedom to research what you want (I have that freedom now pretty much).  It never occurred to me for some reason, but watching his video I see that helping people is a big part of the job description for professors.  The job is not to pour knowledge into people’s heads, it’s to help them achieve their dreams.  At least if you’re doing it right.  :-)

Anyway, go watch Randy’s video if you haven’t seen it yet.  It’s well worth the 90 minutes of your time.