3-D creations

MU students eye an edgier side of computer science, animation typically seen in the entertainment industry
Thursday, March 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:21 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Room 140 of the Engineering Building West may not seem like the foundation for a motion picture company, but one of the students may be the face behind Disney’s next big animation hit.

The collection of students working for and learning from MU research professor Ali Hussam are reaching beyond the typical bounds of computer science majors at MU. They are working to master the intricacies of “entertainment engineering,” which incorporates 3-D animation, video game creation and other skills.

“These students are interested in the sexy side of computer science,” computer science professor Jeff Uhlmann said. “They see the special effects used in movies like ‘Lord of the Rings’ and decide that this may be a great career to go into.”

Bringing artifacts to life

In room 140, computers and equipment are strewn across the room. In the middle, next to a small refrigerator, several computer monitors are stacked on each other, each one displaying a different image. The room, which looks like a cross between a student lounge and a NASA control center, is the lab of Hussam and the select few MU students who work for him.

Although the lab appears in disarray, the students within the walls are honing in on their 3-D visions, which range from interpretations of art to historically significant models.

MU academic tutor Nathan Bleigh is working on turning art into 3-D animation. The painting he’s working with is David Ligare’s “Dido in Resolve,” which now hangs in the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology. Bleigh uses a computer program called Maya, the same program used to animate the movies “Shrek” and “Monsters, Inc.”

Bleigh’s work is still in its early stages. Nothing has been colored yet, and the figure of Dido is incomplete. But still one can zoom in and out of any part of the painting and even explore the ancient city of Carthage, which is only a minor detail in the background of the original painting.

“When it’s done, there will be ships moving in the background, and there will be cloth waving in the wind,” Bleigh said.

The 3-D animation of “Dido in Resolve” will be put on display in the Museum of Art and Archaeology when it’s complete. It is just one of several projects that Hussam’s lab is working on for the museum, with help from a $150,000 federal grant that the museum helped the lab procure.

In fact, Hussam’s entire lab, which includes 12 students who are paid for their work, is funded by federal grants, a grant from the National Science Foundation and a government contract to make communications software for a government agency in Jefferson City.

“We are on the applied side of engineering,” Hussam said. “We are funded to create usable projects.”

Among these usable projects, a stack of monitors connected to one computer and each showing a different artifact, is a prototype destined to be a display in the museum.

Senior Michael Noland said the display will ultimately help the museum save space while still having a wide variety of exhibits they would not otherwise be able to show.

“The museum does not have enough room to display all of these artifacts,” Noland said. “This way, we can display a bunch of exhibits in the space it would take to display one single exhibit.”

The prototype uses a menu with different images from which the viewer can select. On the prototype, Noland can use a mouse to rotate each object. In the finished version, the mouse will be replaced by a metal spinner.

Marlene Perchinske, the museum’s director, says she has been impressed by the work she’s seen.

“The students are doing wonderful work,” Perchinske said. “Ali is a great leader and a real visionary.”

Engineering entertainment

Hussam said his lab is just one step toward helping MU establish itself as a top-flight computer engineering school.

Another step involves two new classes — Computer Science 201 and 301 — which are being taught for the first time this semester. Uhlmann, who helped create the courses, has dubbed the new classes “entertainment engineering” classes.

“They are topic courses to sense the market for this,” Hussam said.

Students in these classes not only learn how to create 3-D animation but also how to put that knowledge to practical use, such as in the creation of video games.

One such game is “The War Within,” which is being developed by sophomores Ben Griffith and Dustin Withrow. Griffith and Withrow are using the “Unreal Tournament 2003” game engine to create a game in which the main character goes inside a person’s body to fight diseases.

“The game is geared towards younger audiences,” Griffith said. “There’s no blood and guts, and you’re killing diseases, not people.”

Projects range from the entertaining to the educational. Senior Remy Nsengiyumva is creating a game based on the life of Josephine Baker, a famous black dancer and civil rights advocate. The game, which will be part of a collection based on black Americans from Missouri, has the player impersonating Baker as she acts as a spy for the French resistance during World War II.

“I want to use the game as an animated learning tool,” Nsengiyumva said.

Hussam said that even though the engineering school didn’t advertise the two classes before offering them, there has been a definite market for them.

“There was a huge waiting list for 201,” Hussam said. “For 301, we were expecting maybe six or seven people. We have 23.” The limit for 201 was 30 students, he said.

Uhlman said the school decided to offer the courses after a survey showed that two-thirds of the computer science students were interested in classes that had to do with computer animation.

In the future, 3-D animation could be taught as part of a proposed information technology major.

“Such a major would promote the advancement of research and would help create business markets in Missouri,” Hussam said.

The emphases of the major would be areas such as information systems and entertainment engineering, Uhlman said.

Hussam said he hopes to teach 3-D animation classes during the summer and fall semesters.

But the future of these classes has not yet been decided. Chris Weisbrook, assistant dean for academic planning at the engineering school, said the information technology major is still in the planning stages and must still be approved by the Missouri Coordinating Board of Higher Education. She said she hopes this will happen in the fall.

Weisbrook said the fate of the 3-D animation classes is up to the computer science department. Xinhua Zhuang, interim department chair of computer sciences, said he wouldn’t know the fate of the program until fall.

3-D animation’s “founding fathers”

The students working under Hussam say they have learned valuable skills from the lab and his classes.

Senior Michael Lipinski, a 301 student who is working on a Game Boy Advance game about the adventures of two MU freshmen, said the class lets him create a product he can use to impress future employers.

“It’s good to know that I’ll walk away from this class with more than a glorified assignment list,” Lipinski said.

Sophomore Sunny Chauhan, who is working with sophomore Tyler Robertson on a program that would recreate St. Louis as it stood in 1804, said that even though he doesn’t plan to pursue a career involving computer animation, the knowledge he has gained while working on the project will help him.

“I major in electrical engineering,” Chauhan said. “Because I have knowledge in how to use the software, it will help me with creating the hardware.”

Hussam said his students are on the vanguard of engineering.

“The founding fathers of engineering, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo, were also the world’s greatest artists,” Hussam said. “What we’re doing here is not foreign to engineering.”

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