how randy pausch influenced my life
October 2nd, 2007
Two weeks ago, Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch gave a lecture on the campus in Pittsburgh. The topic of the lecture was not something technical for a specific audience, but something for everyone: "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." The talk delivers essentially what that title says, and at the same time recognizes many of the important people, places, and events in his life. If you want to cut to the point of this page, just go watch the lecture. It's about ninety minutes long, and worth every minute. I promise.
There is another twist to this lecture, and that it is, by Randy's own description, his "last" lecture. Last year, Randy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which has a very high mortality rate. Despite a year-long battle against the disease, it is now untreatable and he does not have long to live. If you want to know more, you can read the summary and details of his treatment, in his own words. For my part, I want to explain how I came to meet Randy and what he has meant to me.
About ten years ago, in the first semester of my senior year at CMU, a new course was announced called "Building Virtual Worlds" (BVW). It was about designing interactive environments, which optionally used a virtual reality interface, such as position-sensing helmet and gloves instead of mouse and keyboard. The course would be offered for the first time the following semester, Spring 1998. I thought to myself "this sounds like a fun way to spend my last semester of college" so I went to the information session. The session was held in the lab of Randy's research team, and I could immediately tell this was a different kind of lab: it was dimly lit, with toys, trinkets, and stuffed animals scattered about and hanging from the ceiling.
I could also tell from Randy's presentation that this would be a different kind of course: new, untested, and more than a little risky, but potentially great fun... so I decided to go for it. Well, this course was also unique in that "going for it" required an interview with Randy to be admitted. I remember going to his (small) office a few days later with a VHS video tape of some of my work with 3D computer modeling and animation. I don't remember the details of that conversation, but I did get into the course.
There were about 50 students working on a series of two- or three-week projects (or "worlds") throughout the semester. The teams of four or five students changed for each world, and the content of the world was entirely up to the team. Each team had members specializing in one of three roles: modeler, who creates objects and characters; painter, who creates images for covering surfaces; and scripter, who programs the behavior of the world. You can visit the current course web site for details on how it works, and it is basically the same today.
Even though I was studying computer science and "should" have been a scripter, I decided to work as a modeler instead. That is an example of what was so special about this course: it brought artists and engineers together to do amazing things. In my case, it also meant doing something outside the domain of my CS education, in addition to working with those pesky artist-types. Ultimately, the bridging of the arts and engineering is one of the things that Randy is best known for.
Despite the onset of "senioritis", the semester in BVW was mostly a blur of hard work. I don't remember how many worlds I contributed to, but two come to mind. One took the participant into "The Persistence of Memory", a famous painting by Salvador Dali, and my team was interviewed by a local newspaper about it afterwards. The other world took the participant to "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" to help recover an object lost by a character from the TV show. Since the TV show was developed in Pittsburgh, it didn't take long for word about our project to reach the man himself, Mr. Rogers. He came to campus to try out the world for himself, an experience I will never forget.
In this photo, Randy is in the middle, Mr. Rogers has the bow tie, and I am on the left. I have a page in my creative portfolio that talks about what I did for the Mr. Rogers world. This world and several others from other teams were presented in the inaugural BVW show at the end of the semester, open for anyone to attend. This semiannual show has gotten quite popular over the years.
BVW was the clear favorite course of my undergraduate career, in large part because of Randy. He shared his passion for virtual worlds and he gave us the tools and inspiration to do our best work, and to have fun doing it. BVW continues today, and grew into something much larger, which I'll say more about in a moment. In the end, I feel blessed to have been a small part of the genesis of that course, or to put it another way, to have been a guinea pig in Randy's crazy experiment.
Shortly after I graduated, the success of the BVW course led Randy to help found a new master's degree program at CMU called the Entertainment Technology Center. I won't say much about it here, but you can think of it as BVW on steroids, for four semesters. From my experience with BVW, I knew it must be a special program, so after a few years working in Atlanta, I decided to apply for the program.
To make a long story short, I didn't get in. This was very disappointing at the time, because I felt like I was missing out on something both fun and important, but the experience has special significance in light of Randy's recent lecture. In the lecture, he talks about obstacles, such as difficulty getting into college, as "brick walls" that are not meant to keep you out but rather to see how much you really want something. It is funny that I would be learning that lesson now, five years after my attempt at the ETC. Now part of me wants to apply that lesson toward taking another shot at the ETC.
Since graduating in 1998, I have tried to keep in touch with Randy in some small ways. I talked to him at the SIGGRAPH conference a couple of times, and at the reception for the CMU "CS50" anniversary program last April. I have also been keeping an eye on what the ETC is up to. Late last year, I started following his cancer diagnosis and treatment on his web site, followed by the recent sad turn of events in his struggle.
This brings me to September 18th, when I spent almost two hours watching the live webcast of his lecture. I learned about it a few days before, and I could tell from the description (at the bottom of this page) that this would be a lecture worth watching again and sharing, so I recorded the webcast. I foolishly (in retrospect) thought that the lecture would not get much attention and would not be made available by the university. Things went a bit differently, as these links demonstrate:
It is a bit surreal to read these articles on the web and watch this footage from the media. It's a familiar face and familiar voice, in places I didn't expect to find them. It is also strange to hear everyone call him "Professor Pausch" or "Dying professor gives last lecture..." or anything with "Professor." In my mind he's always been just "Randy."
The truth is, I don't really think of Randy as a "doer of great things." I didn't know about many of the achievements he and others mentioned during the lecture, and there is no way I could have predicted the media response. No, I just think of him as someone who makes you feel like a better person simply by having known him. It's hard to describe, but now easy to demonstrate, as his talk does so very, very well.
The version above uses streaming video from Google, but is missing the recognitions after the lecture. You can also download the full version, which includes the recognitions, in Windows Media (WMV) format. This is a large file, about 250 MB.
Here is the summary of the lecture from the CMU web site:
The University Lecture Series (ULS) presents Human Computer Interaction Professor and Entertainment Technology Center co-founder Randy Pausch in a new ULS installment called "Journeys." In the Journeys lectures, Carnegie Mellon faculty members share their reflections on their journeys - the everyday actions, decisions, challenges and joys that make a life. Pausch's talk is titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams."
Says Pausch: "Almost all of us have childhood dreams: for example, being an astronaut, or making movies or video games for a living. Sadly, most people don't achieve theirs, and I think that's a shame. I had several specific childhood dreams, and I've actually achieved most of them. More importantly, I have found ways, in particular with the creation (with Don Marinelli) of the Entertainment Technology Center (http://www.etc.cmu.edu), of helping many young people actually achieve their childhood dreams. This talk will discuss how I achieved my childhood dreams (being in zero gravity, designing theme park rides for Disney, and a few others), and will contain realistic advice on how you can live your life so that you can make your childhood dreams come true, too."
UPDATE: Dr. Gabriel Robins at the University of Virginia has a collection of video presentations by Randy, along with a lot more links to recent media coverage. Also, there is now a Wikipedia article about Randy.