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Building a technological ‘magic kingdom’

CAST Productions teams with Carnegie Mellon University and Disney

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Images designed by Solip Park, graduate student at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center

Putting together a successful project team is like building an ice cream sundae. Both need well-chosen ingredients that will blend together deliciously. 

The College of Applied Science and Technology assembled just such a project team that brought together the essential ingredients of students from each of its departments to work with graduate students from one of the top entertainment technology programs in the country. 

The team then mixed in a member of the Disney Research Lab and together they are building an interactive exhibit at the Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival that will reflect the multifaceted components of CAST.

The Opening Act

Back in early fall, members of the CAST dean’s office and several department heads visited the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University to discuss co-op opportunities. The group met with Mk Haley, the associate executive producer of CMU-ETC and a member of the Disney Research Lab. She expanded the initial idea beyond co-ops, and the two groups put in place the current, two-quarter Ideation & Design project where students and faculty from CAST would work with Haley’s graduate entertainment technology students. 

Haley would direct the project team toward its idea of developing a mini-theme park exhibit that would integrate technologies and concepts taught in CAST all wrapped in the Disney philosophy of education-as-entertainment. It had a two-fold purpose: produce an interactive exhibit for the upcoming Imagine RIT festival and be a model for other multidisciplinary team projects for the future. 

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible. This working relationship is a match made in heaven,” says Haley. 

Fast forward to winter quarter. The RIT and Carnegie Mellon group met for the first time via Skype and started on the initial project focus and storyboard. 

“I think CAST can best be described as a melting pot,” says Katie Lewis, a third-year nutrition major from Binghamton, N.Y. and member of the project team. “We had a ton of different ideas, but the two main ones that kept coming up were food and alternative energy.” 

Building Begins

The concept for the exhibit is a multi-station, alternative-energy-propelled, ice cream sundae-making machine. Lewis described it as big and whimsical. “It has bright colors and weird things, but it can produce something beautiful,” she says.

Guests will move among the multi-station exhibit with an animated Ritchie the Tiger. Each station will be activated by a different energy source, such as solar or wind power, and feature a story told through virtual reality. Guests can select from several ingredient options for their ice cream sundaes. Additionally, they will learn more about the specific technology or practice as they add scoops and sprinkles, says Lewis. 

Having a mix of right-brain, left-brain experiences and skills is essential for the intricate project. For example, Abby Holland, a fourth-year hospitality major from Jamestown, R.I., brings exceptional culinary skills to the project team as she was last year’s executive chef for the annual Puttin’ on the RITz dinner, the black-tie fundraiser for the college.

Another team member, Josh Harrison, a fifth-year electrical engineering technology major from Corning, N.Y., did back-to-back co-ops at Walt Disney World’s Show Ride Engineering in Orlando, Fla. 

“Working at Disney is a lot of fun,” says Harrison. “I was able to work on some cool projects that keep the guests happy and keep the ‘wow factor’ alive at the Disney parks.” For the CAST project, Harrison was able to share some of the Disney storytelling philosophy and experience with show design/special effect controls he learned. He was also able to add his own experiences from local theater and skills in building interactive sets for haunted houses—not that the CAST exhibit will be frightening, he adds.

The graduate mentors from CMU-ETC also bring experience in constructing multi-media projects that both entertain and educate, but most importantly demonstrate best practices for working in multi-disciplinary teams on large-scale projects, says Haley.

“With a project like this, you are combining things that may not seem connected. The project goal is to amuse, to educate, to invent something for a long life rather than just the immediate future,” Haley explains. 

She continually reminds the students to stretch themselves because after graduation they will be part of the development of new and innovative technologies for the future: “The top 10 jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. Children will do jobs that do not exist yet, likely with technologies that have yet to be invented,” she says. “Innovation is persistence.”

Beyond the Exhibit

That innovative persistence is seeping more and more into the culture of RIT. Coupled with coursework that involves directed projects, the CMU-ETC message of outstanding products, compelling stories and a passion for innovation speaks directly to the CAST members from RIT, says Clark Hochgraf, one of four RIT faculty advisors for the project. 

“Creative minds come in all shapes and sizes,” says Hochgraf, an associate professor of electrical, computer and telecommunications engineering technology. “In this project, CAST students are working with people from distinctly different disciplines to build an experience that’s fun and educational.” 

Beyond the festival, the intention is to incorporate more collaborative projects into the college’s portfolio of degree programs. And with established resources like the college’s engineering technology, hospitality and service leadership programs, the chances are the college will do more than wish upon a star. 

“I think Disney is definitely an American icon and it implies that anything can come true if you work hard,” says Lewis. “That’s what we think CAST is all about—working hard but having fun at the same time.”


Images designed by Solip Park, graduate student at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center


Guests to the Imagine RIT festival will interact with Ritchie as they move through the multi-station exhibit “RITchie’s Ice Cream Experience.” They’ll also meet members of CAST Productions, student designers from each of the departments in the College of Applied Science and Technology.