Stage Craft: Computer Science and Engineering Student Blends Performing Arts with AI Technology

UCLA Samueli

Mar 20, 2024

UCLA Samueli Newsroom

Watching the musical “Mean Girls at the Pantages Theater, Ingrid Lee was dazzled by the set’s use of LED paneling. While the rest of the audience was engrossed in watching antagonist Regina George get hit by a school bus, Lee said she was fascinated by how technology was used to recreate the realistic scene on stage. 

As a third-year computer science and engineering student at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering with a minor in theater, Lee is always looking for ways in which technology can improve performing arts, an interest that led to her becoming a finalist for the 2023 Hedy Lamarr Achievement Award. Named after the successful Hollywood actor in the 1940s and 1950s who invented the frequency-hopping technology used in Bluetooth devices, the national award honors female college students in their junior year who have shown promise in technology and entertainment. 

Lee has always been intrigued by all elements of STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Growing up in San Jose, California, she cultivated her interest in robotics and engineering frequenting the San Jose Tech Museum, an all-ages science and technology center with access to labs and hands-on activities. When she started middle school, Lee found a passion for theater, dance and improv, reveling in the opportunity to embody different characters physically and emotionally. When it came time to choose a college, Lee was determined to attend a university that would allow her to explore her interest in STEAM.

“UCLA was always one of my dream schools because I could pursue both engineering and theater simultaneously, and UCLA has such strong programs for both,” Lee said.

Lee had to clear a few hurdles after starting at UCLA in the fall of 2021. First, she petitioned to change her major to computer science and add a theater minor after originally declaring as a mechanical engineering student. Then, she successfully appealed to the Office of Student and Academic Affairs to create a technical breadth area in theater technology, which allowed her to fulfill her technical breadth requirement — a three-course degree requirement designed to provide engineering students with experience outside their primary field of study.

“I always knew I wanted to major in some sort of computer science discipline and get a theater minor, but the road to get there was definitely not easy,” Lee said. “Overall, I think just being proactive and goal-oriented definitely helped me get to where I am today. I knew exactly what opportunities were available to me, did my own research on how to get there, and ultimately was able to create and tailor academic programs at UCLA that suited me the most.”

“UCLA was always one of my dream schools because I could pursue both engineering and theater simultaneously, and UCLA has such strong programs for both,” Ingrid Lee said.

While her classes center around a theoretical knowledge of computer science, Lee is involved in both technology-focused and performance-based clubs and organizations, including product-development clubs DevX and Creative Labs at UCLA, as well as Lapu, the Coyote that Cares Theatre Company — an Asian American theater group on campus. 

Outside of UCLA, Lee has also held several internships, including one at LILEE Systems, an integrated communications-systems company focused on promoting safety in the railroad industry. The experience fostered Lee’s interest in artificial intelligence and its applications in streamlining transportation while encouraging her to explore the many ways AI can be integrated into society. 

Lee said she appreciates UCLA’s dedication to teaching both the theoretical foundation and the physical engineering aspects of computer science, allowing students to graduate with a strong foundational understanding of their field, no matter their career path.  

Jeff Burke, a professor and the associate dean of research and technology at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, has been a big influence on Lee. As founding executive director of the UCLA Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance, Burke mentors Lee on her research to integrate AI, computer vision and augmented reality technologies in live theatrical productions. She designed an AI model to detect objects on stage, trained with custom datasets of student-made live theater videos. Her research and model were presented to the UCLA Department of Theater as well as the attendants of the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space, an event aimed at displaying new research and innovations in the fields of performance, scenography and theater architecture. 

Lee has also worked on her own creative projects. She cast, directed and produced her own one-act adaptation of José Pablo Iriarte’s “Proof of Induction,” complete with custom JavaScript and a web app she built to customize and enhance the show.

“The work that Ingrid was doing used AI to do things that couldn’t be done before — expanding humans’ creative palette rather than trying to just make production more efficient,” said Burke, who encouraged Lee to apply for the Hedy Lamarr Achievement Award after seeing her passion, commitment and creative approach to problem solving. “I’m hopeful that our students will continue to innovate in this way — demonstrating new creative opportunities that augment and expand, rather than replace, human creativity, as well as addressing some of the societal challenges emerging around these new capabilities.”

Lee said her experience as a computer science and theater student has provided her with a more holistic education in the arts and sciences. She encouraged other UCLA students to pursue all of their interests, no matter how unconventional they might seem to the outside world. 

“I think that college is the best time to learn new things and have the opportunity to learn from world-renowned professors who are experts in their fields,” Lee said. “You won’t always get such a golden opportunity to do so after college, so I think there is truly no better time than now!”

Riley de Jong contributed to this story

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