From immersive virtual reality to 3-D imaging, the research conducted at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts doesn’t focus solely on the cinema industry, but pioneers technologies used in other fields, including engineering, architecture and medicine.
“People don’t realize that much is going on here in terms of research, but in fact there’s a lot,” said Scott Fisher, associate dean for research and founding chair of the Interactive Media Division at SCA. “We’ve got collaborations worldwide.”
In the Interactive Media Division alone, Fisher said, the school has received funding from companies like Sony, Nokia and Google to pioneer new technology and applications for their existing software, including panoramic camera technologies and a program that looks to sync personal photos to Google Earth.
“Faculty and students at SCA are conducting research in areas of game innovation, interactive storytelling, social media, mobile technologies, 3-D visualization and many other areas,” said Marientina Gotsis, a research assistant professor who leads the Interactive Media Division’s Games for Health Initiative, a program designed to connect health professionals with various forms of interactive media. “Projects tend to be very diverse and interdisciplinary with collaboration with architecture, health, communications, medicine, neuroscience, biology, mathematics, history and more.”
Elizabeth Daley, dean of the School of Cinematic Arts, said it’s this diverse interdisciplinary work that has propelled SCA to the top.
“We’re pushing to innovate,” Daley said. “What everybody here is interested in is innovation. Ultimately what you value — in cinema too, for that matter — you’re not looking for things that can be replicated. So innovation and originality are the criteria by which we live.”
Though some of the research conducted does improve on existing technologies, one professor noted the only way to stay relevant is to do research that goes beyond what’s happening today.
“We’re looking at things that we don’t quite understand yet, which means by definition we’re out in front and that’s why I think research is critical to any school,” said Mark Bolas, associate professor and director of the INIT Lab at SCA. “My students are going to graduate in a couple of years and I want them to be experts in whatever job they’re going to have in five to six years from now.”
According to Bolas, being ahead of the game is what has gotten SCA its top ranking.
“If you’re number one, you paint a target on your back,” Bolas said. “So the only way to stay number one is to actually be ahead, to be in front of yourself, to be running so fast you don’t even know where you’re going … If you’re looking at what’s here now, you’re number two. You’re looking at the other guy’s back.”
Being number one also means SCA is often sought out by major corporations looking to fund research.
“There’s been a grant from Microsoft, Electronic Arts, we’ve had support from HP, we’ve had support from the MacArthur Foundation, so it runs quite a gamut,” Daley said. “Research always comes from outside grants. The university also has their own research grants that our faculty applies for that they’ve done quite well with.”
Those involved in research also appreciate the support they receive from the school.
“Right now, technological innovations are happening at an exponential rate … So the school has to exponentially increase their commitment to research just to keep up,” Bolas said. “So far they’re pulling that off.”
But in the end, Daley said, the importance of the school’s ranking is in part seen in the quality of students it attracts.
“Most of the students that come here want to be dealing with new things,” Daley said. “I think the fact that we have a games program, that we do 3-D, these are all things that are very attractive to students.”