Tuesday May 16, 2023 | by Kinshasa Peterson

Virtual Glassblowing becomes a reality (sort of) at Pittsburgh Glass Center through a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University

The Pittsburgh Glass Center is billing a brand-new interactive program as "the first virtual glassblowing experience," which the arts nonprofit developed in partnership with Carnegie Mellon graduate students from the university's Entertainment Technology Center, which teaches gaming design and digital animation. The result of the 15-week collaborative project, which saw the Carnegie Mellon students coming to study the glassblowing process, is a simplified first-person simulation of some of the basic steps of glassblowing, which immerses a single user in a virtual glass studio where gathering, picking up frit, blowing through a hose, and knocking off are pictures on screen, and apparently controlled by motion-capture technology that tracks the headset-wearer's movements.

While the demo posted on YouTube offers none of the smoke, fire, or heat that are some of the most alluring theatrical aspects of the actual experience, the experience seems to correctly document the basic steps in the process faithfully. While it may not be able to compete with Nintendo's Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, PGC is hoping to uses this new technology to continue its central mission of outreach to youth in its Allegheny County community. In an announcement of the program launch, PGC said it hoped it would serve as "a virtual experience that educates, engages, and inspires middle and high school students about the glassmaking process."

The virtual experience leads a user through the steps with the assistance of an animated flame character "Blaze" with speech bubbles instructing what to do at each stage. Users do not seem to get to hold an actual pipe but simply go through the motions with the headset showing the results of this air-glassblowing as if it were actually happening (though again the graphics are more videogame than photo-realistic).

PGC intends to implement the VR experience this Summer for its Teen Boot Camp. In Fall 2023, they will launch the program in local middle and high schools, expanding access to glass education. Through this outreach, they have the ability to connect with the next generation of glass artists and enthusiasts, preparing students before they come to the studio in person.

Support for PGC’s partnership with ETC was made possible through the Benedum Foundation, an organization that creates educational experiences for residents of rural communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Through this project, PGC furthers its mission to support artists and students of all ages to learn about and experience creating glass art. Since its opening in 2001, PGC has maintained an active presence in the city’s Penn Avenue Arts District, and their network of relationships with other regional institutions has served to reinforce their mission as a venue for community participation and engagement. 

Founded in 1998, the Entertainment Technology Center was launched as the result of a joint venture between Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science and its College of Fine Arts. For the PGC VR project, a team of ETC graduate students worked with PGC staff.

Called Prism Beam, the ETC team included producers, a UI/UX designer, an experience designer, an artist, and a sound designer and composer, who were guided by ETC instructors Shirley Saldamarco and Scott Stevens. The Prism Beam team performed extensive research for the project, visiting PGC and taking a glassblowing workshop to get their bearings and to develop comprehension of the skills, equipment, and tools used in blowing glass. 

See a video of the headset-wearer's perspective below:

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.