An Interview with Linda Sellheim, Education Lead, Epic Games/Unreal Engine
Happy Earth Day 2021!
I hope this finds our community doing well and enjoying the beginning of Spring. Besides wishing you a happy Earth Day, we wanted to share the winners of our Unreal Futures’ Earth Day PSA CompetItion, as the winners were announced today!
The competition was part of our annual event, the Close It Summit, and was a collaboration with Epic Games and Unreal Engine for the ‘Create and Earth Day Awareness Ad Competition’. Partners include NASEF.org and Tallo.com. Videos of the winners can be viewed at https://innovate-educate.org/portfolio/epic-games-earth-day-awareness-ad/.
As part of this project, I was honored to get some time to interview Linda Sellheim, Education Lead for Epic Games. Linda is one of those hidden gems who has been working in the innovative space of interactive 3D for years. Her team at Epic covers education, working with secondary and higher institutions to help people gain new skills that will advance their careers. Linda’s background is in visual arts and her experience brings a wealth of expertise from many sectors including illustration, toy design, animation, and even starting her own fashion line and manufacturing businesses. Linda has been in the technology and learning space since 2002, including Autodesk and Lynda.com (now LinkedIn Learning).
Jamai: Linda, I am excited to interview you for the SHIFT Blog. It has been so fun to get to know you and learn about the work Epic is doing in education. You’ve always had a passion for working at the intersection of physical and digital spaces, so interactive 3D seems like a natural fit. And, your career history sounds fascinating! Can you share more about your journey?
Linda: I first became interested in 3D in the ’90s while playing games with my nephews. Fascinated by the technology, I started taking classes to learn more. That’s where I first learned about game engines, which were already powerful enough to make me wonder, “Why aren’t more people using these tools for other pursuits?” Even then it seemed clear that this was a great tool for showcasing ideas and solving problems.
In 2003, I decided to go back to grad school to get my MFA. I fell in love with 3D and exploring experimental art with game engines, so that’s where I focused my research. Over the last 15 years it has been really exciting to see how interactive 3D has touched almost every industry. Now, I get to help students and educators prepare for what’s next.
Jamai: When did you start really seeing a shift in the way 3D impacted industry?
Linda: Even in 2005, students graduating with game art degrees were getting job offers from other sectors. Simulation was one of the first spaces I saw this happen, but now students with interactive 3D skills are going to work in architecture, automotive, aerospace, advertising, retail, and more.
Interactive 3D is an amazing tool for visualizing and problem solving in real time, and careers that make use of it are booming. It has become clear that these skills will have a great deal of impact on the future of work. And when you pay attention to the job boards, or even talk to big companies, you can see there’s not enough supply to meet the demand. So anyone that learns these skills is making themselves really valuable right now, and in the long run, as interactive 3D just becomes a part of what we all do, they’ve positioned themselves as an expert and guide.
Jamai: Linda, I know Epic released some great data last year on the skills identified in the current labor market for interactive 3D. Can you tell me about your findings?
Linda: Last year we commissioned Burning Glass to identify the types of interactive 3D skills that are needed in the workplace. The results were pretty amazing. Real-time 3D skills are outpacing the 3D graphics job market by 601%, with a starting salary difference of $13,000. They also found that job growth should increase by 122% over the next 10 years, which tracks to what we are hearing out there anecdotally in the field. Companies want to hire people with these skills, especially as they start to discover how many pieces of content you can create with a game engine and the same 3D assets.
So with all this opportunity, it becomes the job of my division to help educators and students not only understand the potential, but offer the type of resources that are going to set them both up for future success. College is a wonderful place to learn these skills, but, we think the real inflection point is at the middle or high school level. That’s where you really start cultivating the potential of this growth.
Jamai: I was amazed at the numbers in that report. We know that higher education (especially public education) moves pretty slowly when it comes to incorporating new curriculums. How are you reaching secondary institutions to ensure they know about these skills and are teaching them in the classroom?
Linda: We work directly with educators to help them incorporate it into their curriculum. We also work with educators to create lesson plans and different types of content that will instantly appeal to other teachers. And the cool thing is that Unreal Engine can morph into whatever the teacher wants it to be, so if you have a particularly creative teacher, suddenly you have a really creative project in the classroom that is going to appeal to students that grow up loving games and other interactive devices.
For example, in one high school history class the students created a virtual history museum using Unreal Engine. Another teacher uses Fortnite Creative to teach geography to middle schoolers. The possibilities are endless, and there are pathways for everyone who wants to use this technology. This is the really fun part of our work—seeing classroom learning come alive, and watching kids who were players become creators in their own right.
Jamai: Linda, you and your team recently announced the launch of Unreal Futures. Can you tell me more about it?
Linda: In essence, Unreal Futures is a learning series that can be used by an educator in a classroom, by a club (such as Boys & Girls Club), or even by an individual who is learning on their own. The idea behind each learning path is to highlight the best ways to approach interactive 3D within that industry, whether it’s advertising, architecture, games, etc. And to facilitate this, we partner with experts within the field, so everything is directly applicable and tied to real-life situations.
Recently, for example, we partnered with MediaMonks and Oreo for the first installment in this learning series, Unreal Futures: Careers in Advertising. This course gives students the chance to create a shot that would be used in a real-life cookie commercial.
Jamai: Oh yes, I remember you discussing this. And, a fun fact! How many cookie flavors did you tell me Oreo has?
Linda: Believe it or not, 88! Some of the more unusual flavors include Swedish Fish, Tapatio (hot sauce), Lady Gaga, and Sriracha!
Jamai: Well, we will have to serve those at our next live Close It event. How crazy! Who would have guessed? So, let’s talk about the Unreal Futures PSA competition and the winners that were announced today.
Linda: Yes, it was built around Earth Day 2021. Everyone knows how much the environment and climate change affects our world. In this competition, learners got to raise their voice on whatever environmental issue most speaks to them through interactive 3D. That ‘Unreal Futures: Careers in Advertising’ course can actually be really handy here since the output is a public service announcement video. Learners worked through the free video courses, learning the ins and outs of the tool, then created a video for Earth Day as their final project. Thanks to the partners involved (Tallo.com, NASEF, and I+E), we had hundreds currently registered. The final projects will be reviewed by a panel of experts, and winners were announced today.
Jamai: Finally, can you also tell me more about the fellowship you have developed?
Linda: Yes! When COVID-19 hit, we thought long and hard about how we could help people who might have lost their jobs. The Unreal Fellowship is a 30-day learning experience designed to help professionals in film, animation, and VFX learn Unreal Engine and develop a strong command of virtual production tools through live training, guest lectures, and mentorship from top VFX veterans. The Fellowship also provides $10,000 in financial assistance to each participant to ensure that they are able to dedicate the time needed to achieve success. We have run a few hundred people through the program, and are currently working to expand it further. It’s been a real asset for artists during a trying time.
Jamai: Linda, thank you for sharing more about your work. It is an amazing glimpse into the future … which really is NOW. My final question is: Do you feel like your whole world is three-dimensional? Do you dream in 3D? (laughs)
Linda: Of course! (laughs) When you really start paying attention, you’ll realize that interactive 3D is all around us, all the time. For instance, 90% of the products you see in TV commercials and print ads—from cars to sofas to hamburgers—are not real; they’re 3D recreations. Most people just don’t realize that, because the work is so good. Once students start to look more critically at the world, you know their “lightbulb moment” isn’t far off and that’s really fun to watch. In five years, they’re going to be solving problems and creating things we can’t even conceive of today.