(This article is sponsored by the Centre for Digital Media.)
For many years, the public has associated digital media with the gaming and film industries. While it’s true that this has brought about revolutionary changes—thanks to stunningly realistic visual effects and compelling animation—digital technology is also having a profound impact in many other parts of the economy.
This includes architecture and building design, transportation, health care, resource extraction, and education, to name just a few.
Dennis Chenard, director of industry relations for the Vancouver-based Centre for Digital Media, said that some alumni from his school have even launched careers in finance. That’s because this sector has also begun embracing digital technology.
“We have people working at Vancity,” Chenard said. “It’s something you wouldn’t necessarily think is a traditional place for digital media. They set up a future-proofing division and they’ve hired on a few of our grads lately.”
Digital technology’s expanding footprint is one reason why 95 percent of the Centre for Digital Media students are working in their field almost immediately after completing the intensive, 16-month internationally recognized graduate program.
Demand is sky-high, in part because Master of Digital Media students are trained how to make use of such ground-breaking technologies as augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality.
“It’s set up in a way that can address the changing needs and technologies within the industry,” Chenard said. “It’s not a master of a specific software or programming language or tool.”
Some grads are even founding their own firms, such as H + Technologies, which creates immersive holographic experiences to humanize technology.
It’s just one of the 8,000 technology and digital-entertainment companies operating in this province, employing a whopping 141,000 people. This includes entertainment-industry giants such as Sony Pictures Imageworks and the George Lucas–founded Industrial Light & Magic, which have both set up shop in Vancouver.
“We have people at Sony Pictures and we have people at ILM,” Chenard says with pride.
This academic year, the school is celebrating its 10th anniversary following its 2007 launch along Great Northern Way in East Vancouver. It’s on land donated by Finning, which is the world’s largest Caterpillar dealer, and is now part of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, located at the same campus as The Centre for Digital Media.
The Centre for Digital Media is a collaboration between four public postsecondary institutions: UBC, SFU, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and the B.C. Institute of Technology.
“When our students graduate, they get a degree that is signed by the four presidents that has the seal of the four different institutions on it,” Chenard said.
One-third of the students recruited into the Master of Digital Media program come from a technical background. Another third have an art-and-design background, and the other third have more of a “traditional producer-business mindset”, according to Chenard.
Fifty percent are women, which is extremely unusual in technology programs. There’s also a diverse student body because a fair number are from other countries. All students must have an undergraduate degree to gain admission.
Chenard says this approach ensures that students are exposed to different ways of thinking about how to solve problems. This is a reflection of the founders’ vision not to have programming students only speaking to programming students or marketing students only speaking to marketing students.
“We want to get people to understand how to collaborate and work across disciplines,” he states.
Another objective is to encourage students to work rapidly on projects in these multidisciplinary teams, and also not to fear failure. That’s because some of the greatest breakthroughs in the digital world have occurred after an earlier iteration didn’t pan out and then required adjustments.
Part of Chenard’s job is bringing students, faculty, and industry people together for research-and-development projects. This can entail having students putting forth ideas to create something that might help an organization in the future.
“We work with companies like Microsoft, Mercedes, and EA,” he says.
Chenard notes that even Finning has participated in one of these collaborative projects, which was particularly satisfying for the faculty, given the company’s role in the school’s history.
“They wanted to come up with a digital application—something that could help train driver-operators of their heavy machinery about the value of reducing idling time on vehicles,” he says. “So you can imagine that having an environmental impact because of less time burning diesel, but there’s an economic one, too. The costs of burning diesel on these heavy machines are significant, even at a single mining site.”
Another industry partner has been the Vancouver Maritime Museum, which introduced digital-media technologies into its exhibits with the help of Centre for Digital Media students. One of three projects with the museum enables visitors to be at a captain’s wheel, piloting a ship and actually seeing narwhals that are created digitally in the digitally created sea.
“We did the R&D for it and then they actually moved forward with it after and had it fabricated in a more polished way,” Chenard says. “They took it to the boat show and it won an award.”
Port Coquitlam–based Finger Foods Studios also works closely with Centre for Digital Media students. This rapidly growing company applies mixed reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to work across platforms. And this term, the Centre for Digital Media is doing a project with Vancouver-based CanHealth International, which provides interactive, standardized education to health-care workers around the world.
Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter popularized “cluster theory”, noting that when many companies in the same industry are located in the same geographic area, they have a tendency to make one another stronger through the cross-pollination of ideas and talent. Now there’s a digital-media cluster growing rapidly in Vancouver that’s attracting major players, such as Sony Pictures Imageworks, to Vancouver.
“It’s not just a tax-based decision for these companies,” Chenard says. “It’s talent. It’s quality of life. It’s where people want to live and locate, and it’s the ability of people to move between the different industries that the companies are appreciating.”