Graduate Schools and Colleges
"The Science of Fun"
As theme park rides, movies, and Las Vegas shows become more reliant on innovative technology and design, the entertainment industry is calling upon the expertise of engineers.
By Pierre Home-Douglas
If you need to design and build a 1.5-million-gallon pool that could be raised 25 feet in a few seconds for a hit Las Vegas show or a jaw-dropping roller coaster capable of catapulting riders at 1.5 G’s through a 2,000-degree fire, who are you going to call? If mechanical engineer Bob Boehm has his way, it will be one of the graduates of a new program he is setting up at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV). Called entertainment engineering, the program is akin to what Walt Disney once defined as "imagineering"-a field encompassing not only engineering but theater arts, architecture, industrial design, and a host of other skills and trades.
Boehm says the genesis for the idea came from questions he got when he started working at UNLV as the chair of the mechanical engineering department. People with a theater background kept asking whether the university offered engineering courses that could help them deal with the complex, technical world of modern stage shows. In the past, Las Vegas shows would bring engineers in as consultants, but what has become more crucial, Boehm says, is someone with his or her feet in both worlds. "Theater people have an idea that anything can be done. Engineers are more pragmatic. We need to meld the two backgrounds."
UNLV has already offered some of the courses that would go into the program, including one called "Visualization for Entertainment," taught by the dean of engineering and the chairman of the theater department. Boehm sees the debut of the program as a minor for theater majors and engineers, then as a major, and eventually-if the demand is there-as a separate program altogether.
The location of the university is not accidental. As UNLV’s dean of engineering, Eric Sangren, points out, "Las Vegas is probably the biggest lab for entertainment engineering in the country." The city is home to eye-poppingly elaborate shows. Gone are the days when sets could be pulled together by a small crew of carpenters and set designers. Cirque du Soleil's "O" show, for example, demanded a 100-by-150-foot pool that had to move quickly up and down with scarcely a ripple. It needed to be designed and built in less than a year and operate for a decade without breaking down.
The demand for people who bridge the gap between entertainment and engineering extends far beyond Las Vegas. In Jackson, N.J., Six Flags Great Adventure recently launched Kingda Ka, a record-shattering rocket coaster that blasts off horizontally and reaches 128 mph in three seconds. The rapid growth of the video game and theme park industries is placing new demands on the people designing the latest, greatest entertainment creations.
Jim Seay, a former project engineer for Hughes Aircraft, joined Premier Rides in 1995 and today owns the company. His "Return of the Mummy" ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and Hollywood, Calif., employs the same technology used in futuristic magnetic levitation trains, relying on linear induction motors to catapult riders from zero to 60 mph in three seconds. A mechanical engineering graduate from Cornell and California State University-Long Beach, Seay says that "people have come to expect entertainment in their lives-not just at theme parks but even at places like shopping centers." The future for entertainment engineering? "It's just going to get bigger and better." Sweet music to Bob Boehm’s ears.
Content excerpted from ENGINEERING, GO FOR IT!
with permission from the American Society for Engineering Education.
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