Just for fun

Charley Rogers speaks to Pixar co-founder Loren Carpenter about VR, Toy Story, and why education should be fun

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For a person at the top of his field, having been an Oscar-winner, honouree, and even building one of the most beloved and successful animation studios of all time, Loren Carpenter is incredibly down-to-earth. Calling him at his office in California, he was more than happy to take the time to chat, and spoke about everything from his days at the University of Washington to his experience with a virtual reality classroom, and even his favourite Pixar movie.

I was introduced to Loren due to his recent involvement with UK-based company Immersive VR, whose ENGAGE platform was used to ‘beam’ him in to a virtual reality classroom that was then attended remotely, via headset, by pupils from Langley College near Slough. Loren spoke to the students about his prolific career in programming and animation, alongside Dubai-based teacher and VR pioneer Steve Banbury.

But Loren’s education story starts much earlier, in the 1960s as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. Undertaking a Batchelor’s degree in mathematics, and then later a Master’s degree in computer science, Loren also maintained a full-time job during his studies, as well as having a family of his own. Asking Loren about his choice of subjects, he said: “I’m particularly interested in math and computer science, so I would have studied them wherever I was. But my goal at the time, as a student in college, was to acquire tools.”

Loren continued: “I knew that someday I was going to have the opportunity to do something interesting, so I wanted to have as many tools as I could manage to acquire in the time that I had.”

Loren’s career in the entertainment industry needs little introduction; his ground-breaking work on fractals enabled the first 3D, textured landscape made through computer graphics, and was featured in 1982’s Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, while Loren was working at Lucasfilm. His development of this algorithm and the resulting RenderMan software was the start of a new era in computer animation, leading up to the realistic and fleshed-out Pixar movies that we see today.

Education – and life – should be fun, and interesting, and Loren Carpenter is certainly a perfect example of how this outlook can work to the utmost advantage

But in relation to the way Loren has built his career, I was particularly interested in something he repeated throughout the interview: that he was always looking to do something that was ‘fun’. When considering the importance of education, the functional aspects of schooling often take over; getting ready for work, passing exams, and gaining certain basic knowledge. However, especially with the advent of the STEAM movement, educators are now considering the enjoyment and wider social development that education can foster in young people. Loren is no stranger to this, and has long held the opinion that to do well, although hard work is incredibly important, applying this focus to something you’re truly interested in is likely to yield much better results than plugging away at something you find boring.

Asking him about his experiences with the VR classroom through ENGAGE, and his thoughts on the adoption of VR in education going forward, Loren was realistic, but enthusiastic: “We’ll know it’s been successful when it’s commonplace. But I can see there are extraordinary opportunities in VR. Think of field trips and the like; it offers the chance to do them on an entirely different scale – you could look at the whole solar system! It’s incredible, I wish I had it when I was growing up.”

In terms of tips for teachers, especially those who may be somewhat apprehensive about adopting tools such as VR in the classroom, Loren had a similar recommendation for ‘trying it out’: “Just give it a go yourself, that should take care of most fears. Because then [you] will have an idea what [the experience] is like, and have an indication of designs and models, create a program for [your] class – that should increase understanding.”

For Loren, then, it’s all about finding a way around things. This has been evident throughout his own career, and he recommends it for a fulfilling education. But it’s not just about getting through school and getting a job. Education – and life – should be fun, and interesting, and Loren Carpenter is certainly a perfect example of how this outlook can work to the utmost advantage.

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