Randy says that his obsession with efficiency led him to wonder if he could help students achieve their dreams on a larger scale than just one-on-one. That’s when Randy created the “Building Virtual Worlds” course, opening it up to students all across Carnegie Mellon University (not just computer science students). The students were put into groups of four and given two weeks to program a helmet-based virtual world, dreaming up whatever they wanted. There were only two rules: no shooting violence, and no pornography. Most students rose to the challenge; when they had their first presentations, Randy was blown away, their work far exceeding his expectations. Randy wasn’t sure what to do, so he called his mentor Andy Van Dam, explained the situation, and Andy advised Randy to go back to class the next day and say, “that was pretty good, but I know you can do better.”
Randy combines his love of achieving dreams with his commitment to being practical and efficient in order to create this unique, creative course with nearly boundless parameters. However, after the first week this poses an enormous obstacle for Randy—the projects the kids made already exceeded his expectations for the whole course. So, Randy calls Andy van Dam, who wisely advises Randy to respond to these amazing projects not by coddling the kids and telling them how impressed he was, but instead by telling them that these projects are good, but he knows they can do better.
Randy was unsure, but he followed Andy Van Dam’s advice anyway, and it turned out to be exactly the right thing to do—the projects kept getting better and better. Andy was telling Randy that Randy didn’t know how high the bar should be for the class, and that he’d do the students a disservice by ceasing to challenge them. Eventually, on show-and-tell days, the classroom would become so packed that they had to move into an auditorium, with more than 400 people cheering for their favorite virtual reality presentations. Randy says that on presentation days he could always tell which projects would be the best based on the body language of a group—if they were standing close together, Randy knew they’d bonded and their virtual world would be worth seeing.
Randy, having learned from the advice of Andy van Dam, teaches his students that they can do better no matter how good their project is already. So, the groups work hard to quite literally turn their imaginations into reality and share it with their friends and family. In a way, this process of turning imagination into reality is reminiscent of how Randy painted his bedroom walls to externalize his imagination years earlier.
Randy, along with Carnegie Mellon drama professor Don Marinelli, decided to take it up a notch and create The Entertainment Technology Center, which is a two-year master’s degree in which artists and technologists come together to design rides, games, or anything else. At times, Randy and Don became each other’s brick walls, as their right-brain vs. left-brain thinking was so different, but they always managed to find a way to compromise and make things work. They’re expanding the Entertainment Technology Center to other places around the world, meaning that hundreds of students Randy will never know might have the opportunity to fulfill their craziest childhood dreams because of him.
Randy and Don use the obstacle of their different approaches to thinking (logical vs. creative) as an opportunity to come to compromises that satisfy both of them. This leads to enormous success for the program. Randy is also happy that the existence of the program, and its expansion, will mean that other people will be able to achieve their dreams because of him.