No Man Is an Island: Ask Adrian Biagioli, BCA ’16

Adrian Biagioli was a sophomore three years ago, when he first began working with Mr. Lang on the Ellis Island project. The program, which involves designing a platform where people can experience Ellis Island through virtual reality technology, progressed immensely during Biagioli’s time at BCA. For 2 years, Biagioli was the project lead and head programmer, and did everything from game design to working with artists on models. Mr. Lang describes him as a “strong self-starter” and Neel Patel-Shah, Biagioli’s forerunner, states that Adrian was “incredibly good at what he did and was always quick to help out.” Adrian Biagioli shared with this reporter his experiences of working on and developing the Ellis Island project.

How did you initially get involved in the Ellis Island project?

I heard that Mr. Lang was doing work with virtual reality, which involves the use of headsets like the oculus rift. I knew about the technology because I read about it—there’s a screen inside the headset, which creates an illusion. I knew the project was a special opportunity and got involved by building my relationship with the students working on it at the time. I took Mr. Lang’s interactive design class, which was how I formally became part of the team.

What was having Mr. Lang as a mentor like? Do you still keep in touch with him now?

Mr. Lang is a really special person who is still very involved in the industry. He’s actually a NYC Chair at SIGGRAPH, the premier computer graphics organization. I went to the SIGGRAPH conference in California over the summer and got to meet titans of the industry including people from Epic Games, Inc. and Pixar—a lot of these people knew Mr. Lang. Working with him taught me a lot and, as a college student going for a game design major, Mr. Lang is an essential person to know. He gives a lot of great advice.

What was your main role? Can you outline some of the progress that was made during your time working on the project?

At the very beginning, the project supported Oculus DK1 (development kit 1) and only had rotational tracking—compared to the project’s current technology, it was very preliminary.

I was knowledgeable about Unity, and part of my role consisted of giving advice or tips as we advanced. I became project lead and lead programmer when the people that worked on the original iteration of the program graduated; I was both willing to put in the time and commitment as well as had the technical know-how to take over. After that, my biggest responsibility was doing programming and working with artists, as well as helping operate Unity, a cross platform game engine.

How would you describe your relationship with the underclassmen that took over once you graduated?

People that intern with Mr. Lang during their senior experience are the ones that tend to takeover the project. I passed down the project to Neel Patel-Shah, who is a good friend of mine; he’s a great guy who works really hard and has a lot of technical know-how. I actually had a job over the summer where I taught Autodesk Inventor (mechanical design software) and Neel subbed in for me during a week I was busy. I definitely respect him, both professionally and personally.

How has the project influenced your current endeavors and future goals?

The Ellis Island project introduced me to virtual reality, which is currently my main passion. Not only did it heavily influence me in the direction of game design, I also think this project was the determining factor of getting into my program at Carnegie Mellon University. In the short term, I’d really like to get an internship or job at a game company as well as continue to learn more. A lot of people see game design as a dream job that is impossible to make a career out of—but you can. You just have to be able to form professional connections and put yourself out there.

I think everyone who plays video games has an idea of a game they would want made, and the barrier is just taking the time to learn how. At first, learning it can feel very intangible—you might finish a form of data visualization that may or may not be useful. For game design, you one change in a line of code can make a huge difference and you’re really able to paint with the pixels.

What is one game design related skillset you’ve gained by working on the Ellis Island project?

I learned that it’s very important to consider how people will actually use what you’re creating. At one point we were trying to figure out different ways to control on the virtual Ellis Island. We considered using a Wii Remote controller, a PlayStation control, and other devices until we settled for what we decided was most intuitive for users. I realized that a big part of game design is anticipating how your product will actually serve users and how people will use virtual reality equipment, which includes everyone, not just gamers.

What is one unexpected skillset you’ve gained?

As the project lead, I did a lot of presenting to visitors, which is what ultimately allowed the project to continue. As our work attracted more attention, we were also able to obtain more funding from Mr. Davis.

My audience ranged from people that are technologically in-tune to people who aren’t, like the visitors from Ellis Island—I had to learn how to explain the project and its details in a way where the average user could understand. I also interacted with foreigners, including visitors from China and Japan, which taught me a bit about working around a language barrier. Many of these presentations were on short notice. In general there were a lot of challenging scenarios I was placed in that helped me develop technical and communication skills.

Is this program and technology unique to BCA?

I can think of only about two other schools in our area that could possibly do something like our program. Mr. Davis’ willingness to devote money and serious consideration into our work is something you don’t see in most other high schools. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with such a special project—I believe that a major contributor to our school’s ability to host it was Mr. Lang’s technical knowledge in addition to our administration’s openness to supporting new but promising student ventures.

Do you have any advice for current BCA students?

I think, as a generalization, people at BCA are very concerned about grades. They think they won’t be able to do great things if they aren’t academically perfect. The thing is, I didn’t get into CMU because of my grades, but because of my project work.

Of course I understand the importance of doing well in classes, but too many BCA students get caught up in the numbers. Ultimately, if you don’t put time and energy into doing things you’re passionate about, you’re just not going to be as interesting of a person as you could be.