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Learning gets a third dimension

To Brian Sumption, 3-D is only natural.

“We were born with two stereoscopic eyes and plopped down in a sandbox in the first couple of years, and we played with balls in 3-D and built 3-D sandcastles,” said Sumption, a University of Idaho professor. “Then they put us in school, and from that day on 99 percent of our education is taught through 2-D.”

Sumption is part of a program at UI that is changing that. Today, the university will graduate its first seven students in its new virtual technology and design program – a 2-year-old venture aimed at giving students skills in animation, computer modeling, critical thinking and design. The program trains graduates for work on “immersive” applications, from video games to pilot training programs.

The virtual technology graduates will be among about 1,500 students getting their diplomas at UI commencement ceremonies in Moscow today.

The new UI program comes as universities around the country are looking to train students in emerging technologies. Some schools have developed programs in video design. Others are working similar elements into existing curriculums in computer science or architecture. But Sumption said UI’s development of a specific degree program in video technology and design is rare so far.

While interest in the fields of video games and special effects for movies often brings students to the field, what they find is a wide range of other possibilities, Sumption said.

For Brian Lathrop, a 24-year-old Orofino, Idaho, native who’s graduating today, the program has led him to a job as a 3-D technician for Visual Genesis, a Boise company. Lathrop said an example of the kind of work he’ll be doing is creating a wildfire simulator used to train firefighters.

“They’ll set a firefighter down at a computer and load up this ‘world,’ ” he said.

Another student, Steve Johnson, has been doing freelance work building 3-D architectural models for a Seattle firm, and he’s hoping to find full-time work in a similar vein. But he’s also drawn to the world of entertainment.

“I would love to get into animation,” he said. “The Holy Grail of this whole thing is the dream job at Pixar.”

Johnson, 32, graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School in 1990 and kicked around a bit before enrolling at the UI in 1997. He was working on a computer science major and nearing completion when he took a class in 3-D modeling and decided that was what he wanted to do.

“It is just getting what you see in your head to come out in the real world the way you see it,” he said. “It’s a lot closer to art than it is architecture.”

Sumption is seeing a rapid growth in interest from students. Sixty students enrolled in last year’s first “freshman class” for the program, and he’s expecting 90 this fall. He’s also envisioning a wide range of possibilities for future uses of the combination of technology and creativity that he’s teaching.

One program could teach people how to pilot freighters. Another might recreate a historical battlefield, mimicking the real environment and overlaying access points for further information.

“You could take fourth-graders out (in a simulation) and let each one be a wolf, and their task is to catch a caribou,” Sumption said.

The students would find that a lone wolf has a hard time catching a caribou, and that they need to work as a pack to be successful.

“Through the process of the game, they’re learning about pack behavior; they’re learning about animal behavior,” he said.

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