Designing a set for a college drama production is in some ways like designing a house. Somebody has to sit down at a drafting table to make scale drawings of the stage, the lighting and all the props, including bookcases and chairs.
That's why a computer has made its way into the drama department at California State University, Northridge.
The desk-top computer, which looks a lot like any popular home model, is actually a $60,000 marvel. It is faster than a pencil and far more fun.
"This is the future," said theater arts Prof. Owen Smith, a man who always avoided math and numbers until until someone put a computer in front of him.
30 Graphics Computers
The machine Smith uses is one of 30 graphics computers donated to CSUN last year by a large electronics firm that chooses to remain anonymous. The donation kicked off a $5-million fund-raising campaign intended to provide CSUN with an advanced teaching facility in the fast-developing field of computer-assisted design.
The idea is to develop a relationship between the university and the Valley's miniature "Silicon Valley" of high-technology industries, said David L. Toppen, CSUN's planning coordinator and director of the program called IMAGE, which stands for Institute for Media Arts Graphics & Engineering.
"We realized that Northridge was in a unique position with the entertainment industry to the east and the high-tech industry to west. We wanted to install into our curriculum an appropriate application of computer technology that would span the disciplines."
The plan is for local industry to provide the equipment and for Northridge to provide the training.
"It's a win, win, win proposition," Toppen said. "The students get trained on good stuff. Our industrial support base wins because our students are trained in modern technology. And the university wins because we have found an alternative source of funds for high-technology equipment."
So far, in addition to the 30 computers, IMAGE has raised more than $100,000 in donations of money and equipment, Toppen said.
The computers have sparked some unorthodox projects in fields in which computers are known to excel.
Last spring, a group of engineering students used the new computers to design a mini-Baja racer as their senior project.
They went on to build the car and entered it in the Society of Automotive Engineers' Mini-Baja rally, held in El Paso. The car finished second in a series of tests for acceleration, climbing ability, fuel efficiency and safety.
Better Design Planned
This year a new batch of students will try to design a better car, said Reza Asgari, faculty adviser for the project.
The theater may not be so obvious a place for a computer. Still, Smith was happy to have it.
"Somebody dropped $60,000 worth of state-of-the-art equipment in my lap and said, 'Have a good time,' " he said. "That was an opportunity I didn't want to pass up. I didn't mind spending the time to learn."
He found plenty of work for it behind the scenes.
You need a 5-foot, 6-inch bookcase in the corner of the stage's living room? Just type in the dimensions and press the "draw" key. Blink, a line appears on the screen. Do that a few times and the bookcase takes shape.
Then, by moving something that looks like a Ouija-board pointer around, you line the cross hairs on the screen over one corner of the bookcase and press the "zoom" key. Blink, the corner enlarges to fill up the screen. Then you fill in the molding. Press the "zoom" key again and, blink, the corner shrinks again so the whole bookcase is visible.
A few more keystrokes and the whole set appears on the screen. You point the cross hairs where you want the bookcase and it falls into place, readjusted to scale. The molding is too small to see now. But the computer remembers it's there. If you don't like anything later on, you just change it. The rest of the drawing stays the same.
When it's time to print the design on a 4-by-5-foot paper, the computer enlarges everything to the scale you want.
Toppen is trying to cultivate interest in the new equipment in other departments that do not automatically come to mind as computer intensive.
Chemistry students are using the computers, for example. They are learning how to draw three-dimensional figures to replace the balls and sticks that traditionally have been used to depict the structure of molecules.
This fall, home economics students will get their hands on one of the computers to do architectural renderings, interior decoration and possibly even fashion designs.
Although the computer can make tedious jobs easier, and can even become a source of pleasure in itself for some students, its use in Northridge classrooms will be watched with a skeptical eye.
"The last thing we want to do is become a trade tech," Toppen said. "Therefore, it is very important that we review carefully to be sure that we maintain the quality of our existing instructional program. We want to avoid the use of computing in games and pedestrian kinds of applications."
The access to advanced computers will make Northridge technical graduates more attractive in the job market, Toppen said. Non-technical students may have to keep their new skills in perspective.
Smith, the theater arts professor, said he doubts that many of his students will land jobs on the strength of their computer skills. Computers just aren't going to be that prevalent in theater business for some time, he predicted.
"This is an expensive piece of equipment," Smith said. "Theater is a business that isn't a great moneymaker."
That thought, however, doesn't dull Smith's enthusiasm about teaching those students computer competence.
"I think they should be proficient because it's here to stay," Smith said. "When they get out of here, it may not be around. But when they retire, it will be."