Dr. Marc Olano, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, became interested in computer graphics and graphics hardware while studying electrical engineering as an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois. Since 1989, he has focused this interest into exciting research pursuits. A year ago, Dr. Olano began working with Firaxis games on texture compression–a method of compressing texture maps within scenes in a video game as a way to eliminate loading delays–for the Civilization V video game.
In addition to his work with video game graphics, Dr. Olano has been collaborating with Dr. Erle Ellis of UMBC’s Geography and Environmental Systems Department to develop Ecosynth, a system used to create 3D scans of areas of vegetation. An alternative to a LIDAR Scanner, which is cumbersome and expensive, Ecosynth uses a consumer point-and-shoot camera mounted to a remote-controlled helicopter to take a series of photographs that are converted with computer vision software into a 3D model of the area. With this data, it is possible to measure vegetation biomass, carbon, and ideally, species diversity. Dr. Olano is specifically working to create computer vision algorithms that are able to process this data at a faster rate.
Though he says he’s not currently a video game enthusiast himself, as director of the Computer Science Department’s Game Development Track, Dr. Olano works to help students break into the industry. Together with the Visual Arts Department’s Animation and Interactive Media concentration, these programs make up GAIM, UMBC’s Games, Animation and Interactive Media program. GAIM prepares students for careers in the Video Game industry and exposes them to internship opportunities at local game development companies such as Firaxis, Big Huge Games, Epic Games, Mythic Entertainment and Zynga.
There are currently about 60 computer science students pursuing the specialization, and Dr. Olano believes that the track is steadily gaining popularity. “The real advantage is that [the track] gives students the knowledge that the stuff they’re using is useful in something that they find fun,” says Dr. Olano. Game Development students are given the unique opportunity to actually design and program an original video game during the Capstone Course (CMSC 493), where Visual Arts and Computer Science students join forces for a semester. The course, explains Dr. Olano, mimics the setup of teams in the industry where 50-100 artists and programmers must work together for up to 3 years to develop a single game.
“You really need to be able to work with and communicate with people who don’t know the same things you do,” says Dr. Olano of the collaborative process of video game development. Students build games for the PC or utilize the XBOX 360 lab that was donated to UMBC by Microsoft in 2008. One student-developed game that especially sticks out in Dr. Olano’s mind is SLUG, a 2D flash game where the player must help a pink slug collect acorns while avoiding enemies: bees, birds and frogs. The game, a winner at the 2010 West Virginia Flash Festival, is a shining example of what Game Development students can aspire to create within the program.