Randy Pausch's Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams
Given at Carnegie Mellon University
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
For more information, see www.randypausch.com
© Copyright Randy Pausch, 2007
Note that this transcript is provided as a public service but may contain transcription errors.
All right, my next one. Being an Imagineer. This was the hard one. Believe me, getting to zero gravity is easier than becoming an Imagineer. When I was a kid, I was eight years old and our family took a trip cross-country to see Disneyland. And if you've ever seen the movie National Lampoon's Vacation, it was a lot like that! [laughter] It was a quest. [shows slides of family at Disneyland] And these are real vintage photographs, and there I am in front of the castle.
And there I am, and for those of you who are into foreshadowing, this is the Alice ride. [laughter] And I just thought this was just the coolest environment I had ever been in, and instead of saying, gee, I want to experience this, I said, I want to make stuff like this. And so I bided my time and then I graduated with my Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon, thinking that meant me infinitely qualified to do anything. And I dashed off my letters of applications to Walt Disney Imagineering, and they sent me some of the damned nicest go-to-hell letters I have ever gotten. [laughter] I mean it was just, we have carefully reviewed your application and presently we do not have any positions available which require your particular qualifications.
Now think about the fact that you're getting this from a place that's famous for guys who sweep the street. [laughter] So that was a bit of a setback. But remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They're there to stop the other people.
All right, fast forward to 1991. We did a system back at the University of Virginia called Virtual Reality on Five Dollars a Day. Just one of those unbelievable spectacular things. I was so scared back in those days as a junior academic. Jim Foley's here, and I just love to tell this story. He knew my undergraduate advisor, Andy Van Dam, and I'm at my first conference and I'm just scared to death. And this icon in the user interface community walks up to me and just out of nowhere just gives me this huge bear hug and he says, that was from Andy. And that was when I thought, OK, maybe I can make it. Maybe I do belong.
And a similar story is that this was just this unbelievable hit because at the time, everybody needed a half a million [dollars] to do virtual reality. And everybody felt frustrated. And we literally hacked together a system for about five thousand dollars in parts and made a working VR system. And people were just like, oh my god, you know, the Hewlett Packard garage thing. This is so awesome. And so I'm giving this talk and the room has just gone wild, and during the Q and A, a guy named Tom Furness, who was one of the big names in virtual reality at the time, he goes up to the microphone and he introduces himself.
I didn't know what he looked like but I sure as hell knew the name. And he asked a question. And I was like, I'm sorry did you say you were Tom Furness? And he said yes. I said, then I would love to answer your question, but first, will you have lunch with me tomorrow? [laughter] And there's a lot in that little moment, there's a lot of humility but also asking a person where he can't possibly say no. [laughter]
And so Imagineering a couple of years later was working on a virtual reality project. This was top secret. They were denying the existence of a virtual reality attraction after the time that the publicity department was running the TV commercials. So Imagineering really had nailed this one tight. And it was the Aladdin attraction where you would fly a magic carpet, and the head mounted display, sometimes known as gator vision. And so I had an in. As soon as the project had just, you know they start running the TV commercials, and I had been asked to brief the Secretary of Defense on the state of virtual reality. OK, Fred Brooks and I had been asked to brief the Secretary of Defense, and that gave me an excuse. So I called them. I called Imagineering and I said, look, I'm briefing the Secretary of Defense. I'd like some materials on what you have because it's one of the best VR systems in the world.
And they kind of pushed back. And I said, look, is all this patriotism stuff in the parks a farce? And they're like, hmm, ok. [laughter] But they said this is so new the PR department doesn't have any footage for you, so I'm going to have to connect you straight through to the team who did the work. Jackpot! So I find myself on the phone with a guy named Jon Snoddy who is one of the most impressive guys I have ever met, and he was the guy running this team, and it's not surprising they had done impressive things. And so he sent me some stuff, we talked briefly and he sent me some stuff, and I said, hey, I'm going to be out in the area for a conference shortly,would you like to get together and have lunch? Translation: I'm going to lie to you and say that I have an excuse to be in the area so I don't look too anxious, but I would go to Neptune to have lunch with you! [laughter]
And so Jon said sure, and I spent something like 80 hours talking with all the VR experts in the world, saying if you had access to this one unbelievable project, what wouldyou ask? And then I compiled all of that and I had to memorize it, which anybody that knows me knows that I have no memory at all, because I couldn't go in looking like a dweeb with, you know, [in dweeby voice] Hi, Question 72. So, I went in, and this was like a two hour lunch, and Jon must have thought he was talking to some phenomenal person, because all I was doing was channeling Fred Brooks and Ivan Sutherland and Andy Van Dam and people like that. And Henry Fuchs. So it's pretty easy to be smart when you're parroting smart people.
And at the end of the lunch with Jon, I sort of, as we say in the business, made "the ask." And I said, you know, I have a sabbatical coming up. And he said, what's that? [laughter] The beginnings of the culture clash. And so I talked with him about the possibility of coming there and working with him. And he said, well that's really good except, you know, you're in the business of telling people stuff and we're in the business of keeping secrets. And then what made Jon Snoddy Jon Snoddy was he said, but we'll work it out, which I really loved.
The other thing that I learned from Jon Snoddy -- I could do easily an hour long talk just on what have I learned from Jon Snoddy. One of the things he told me was that wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you. He said, when you're pissed off at somebody and you're angry at them, you just haven't given them enough time. Just give them a little more time and they'll almost always impress you. And that really stuck with me. I think he's absolutely right on that one.
So to make a long story short, we negotiated a legal contract. It was going to be the first -- some people referred to it as the first and last paper ever published by Imagineering. That the deal was I go, I provide my own funding, I go for six months, I work with a project, we publish a paper. And then we meet our villain. [shows slide of a picture of a former dean of Randy's] I can't be all sweetness and light, because I have no credibility. Somebody's head's going to go on a stick. Turns out that the person who gets his head on a stick is a dean back at the University of Virginia. His name is not important. Let's call him Dean Wormer. [laughter]
And Dean Wormer has a meeting with me where I say I want to do this sabbatical thing and I've actually got the Imagineering guys to let an academic in, which is insane. I mean if Jon hadn't gone nuts, this would never have been a possibility. This is a very secretive organization. And Dean Wormer looks at the paperwork and he says, well it says they're going to own your intellectual property. And I said, yeah, we got the agreement to publish the paper. There is no other IP. I don't do patentable stuff. And says, yeah, but you might.
And so deal's off. Just go and get them to change that little clause there and then come back to me. I'm like, excuse me? And then I said to him, I want you to understand how important this is. If we can't work this out, I'm going to take an unpaid leave of absence and I'm just going to go there and I'm going to do this thing. And he said, hey, I might not even let you do that. I mean you've got the IP in your head already and maybe they're going to suck it out of you, so that's not going to fly either. [laughter]
It's very important to know when you're in a pissing match. And it's very important to get out of it as quickly as possible. So I said to him, well, let's back off on this. Do we think this is a good idea at all? He said, I have no idea if this is a good idea. I was like, [sarcastically] OK, well we've got common ground there. Then I said, well is this really your call? Isn't this the call of the Dean of Sponsored Research if it's an IP issue? And he said, yeah, that's true.
I said, but so if he's happy you're happy? [So he says] Yeah, then I'd be fine. Whoosh! Like Wile E. Coyote, I'm gone in a big ball of dust. And I find myself in Gene Block's office, who is the most fantastic man in the world. And I start talking to Gene Block and I say let's start at the high level, since I don't want to have to back out again. So let's start at the high level. Do you think this is a good idea? He said, well if you're asking me if it's a good idea, I don't have very much information. All I know is that one of my star faculty members is in my office and he's really excited, so tell me more.
Here's a lesson for everybody in administration. They both said the same thing. But think about how they said it, right? [In a loud, barking voice] I don't know! [In a pleasant voice] Well, I don't have much information, but one of my star faculty members is here and he's all excited so I want to learn more. They're both ways of saying I don't know, but boy there's a good way and a bad way. So anyway, we got it all worked out. I went to Imagineering. Sweetness and light. And all's well that ends well.
Some brick walls are made of flesh. So I worked on the Aladdin Project. It was absolutely spectacular, I mean just unbelievable. Here's my nephew Christopher. [Shows slide of Christopher on Aladdin apparatus] This was the apparatus. You would sit on this sort of motorcycle-type thing. And you would steer your magic carpet and you would put on the head-mounted display.
The headmounted display is very interesting because it had two parts, and it was a very clever design. To get through put up, the only part that touched the guest's head was this little cap and everything else clicked onto it -- all the expensive hardware. So you could replicate the caps because they were basically free to manufacture. [Showing slide of Randy cleaning a cap] And this is what I really did is I was a cap cleaner during the sabbatical. [laughter]
I loved Imagineering. It was just a spectacular place. Just spectacular. Everything that I had dreamed. I loved the model shop. People crawling around on things the size of this room that are just big physical models. It was just an incredible place to walk around and be inspired. I'm always reminded of when I went there and people said, do you think your expectations are too high? And I said, you ever see the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory? Where Gene Wilder says to the little boy Charlie, he's about to give him the chocolate factory. He says "Well Charlie, did anybody ever tell you the story of the little boy who suddenly got everything he ever wanted?" Charlie's eyes get like saucers and he says, "No, what happened to him?" Gene Wilder says, "He lived happily ever after." [laughter]
OK, so working on the Aladdin VR, I described it as a once in every five careers opportunity, and I stand by that assessment. And it forever changed me. It wasn't just that it was good work and I got to be a part of it. But it got me into the place of working with real people and real HCI user interface issues. Most HCI people live in this fantasy world of white collar laborers with Ph.D.s and masters degrees. And you know, until you got ice cream spilled on you, you're not doing field work. And more than anything else, from Jon Snoddy I learned how to put artists and engineers together, and that's been the real legacy.
We published a paper. Just a nice academic cultural scandal. When we wrote the paper, the guys at Imagineering said, well let's do a nice big picture. Like you would in a magazine. [Showing slide of first page of the paper, with a photo at the top that spans two columns]. And the SIGGRAPH committee, which accepted the paper, it was like this big scandal. Are they allowed to do that? [laughter] There was no rule! So we published the paper and amazingly since then there's a tradition of SIGGRAPH papers having color figures on the first page. So I've changed the world in a small way. [laughter]
And then at the end of my six months, they came to me and they said, you want to do it for real? You can stay. And I said no. One of the only times in my life I have surprised my father. He was like, you're what? He said, since you were, you know [gesturing to height of a child's head],this is all you wanted, and now that you got it, and you're... huh?
There was a bottle of Maalox in my desk drawer. Be careful what you wish for. It was a particularly stressful place. Imagineering in general is actually not so Maalox-laden, but the lab I was in -- oh, Jon left in the middle. And it was a lot like the Soviet Union. It was a little dicey for awhile. But it worked out OK. And if they had said, stay here or never walk in the building again, I would have done it. I would have walked away from tenure, I would have just done it. But they made it easy on me. They said you can have your cake and eat it too. And I basically became a day-a-week consultant for Imagineering, and I did that for about ten years.
And that's one of the reasons you should all become professors. Because you can have your cake and eat it too. I went and consulted on things like DisneyQuest. So there was the Virtual Jungle Cruise. And the best interactive experience I think ever done, and Jesse Schell gets the credit for this, Pirates of the Caribbean. Wonderful at DisneyQuest. And so those are my childhood dreams. And that's pretty good. I felt good about that.