For decades, Great Northern Way was home to a key player in the Canadian resource sector. The head office of Finning International, which is the world’s largest Caterpillar heavy-equipment dealer, was on the site now occupied by the Centre for Digital Media.
It’s a consortium of UBC, SFU, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and the B.C. Institute of Technology that offers a 16-month master of digital media.
Dennis Chenard, director of industry relations at the Centre for Digital Media, sees the location as a metaphor for the entire economy.
The old 20th-century industrial activities that took place there have been replaced by the production of digital applications in a range of sectors. One indication of that is that the school, along with neighbouring Emily Carr University of Art + Design, recently hosted an interface health summit to examine digital approaches for enhancing patient care.
“This was a program that was very much built with industry for industry,” Chenard told the Straight by phone. “I think there’s this old-world view that industry and academia are quite siloed. Here, we’re proof that it doesn’t need to be a siloed space because this campus is a mix.”
The Centre for Digital Media opened in 2007, thanks to Finning International donating the land. It was the same year that Apple unveiled the iPhone, transforming the digital environment.
Initially, the campus was expected to play a big role in developing the video-game industry, but nowadays the digital economy is permeating everything from banking to construction to museum management.
“Gaming is a smaller piece of the pie as far as where the grads of the program will go,” Chenard said. “But they bring a lot of the gaming sensibilities into a variety of industries.”
As an example of how digital entrepreneurs are evolving, he cited Wilson Tang, a founding partner of a mobile-game company called Exploding Barrel Games, which merged with Kabam.
Tang has since created a company called Yumebau, which creates augmented-reality applications for museums.
The Centre for Digital Media accepts students every September, aiming for a mix of one-third with technical skills, one-third with art and design skills, and one-third being more “product manager–centric”, according to Chenard. This enables people with different aptitudes to work in small teams to create applications.
The first term is akin to boot camp, he said, as students learn the foundations of digital media.
They take a game-design course, finding out about such things as compulsion loops. There’s a production course called Building Virtual Worlds. In addition, they study improv to bolster their communication skills.
The second term involves real-world research and development.
After 12 months on campus, they devote their final four months to an internship.
Because it’s a master’s program, students must have completed an undergraduate degree to gain admission.
“They get inspired by working on applied R & D with industry partners, like the [Vancouver] Maritime Museum or Exploding Barrel Games or Yumebau,” Chenard said.
According to the Centre for Digital Media, 95 percent of graduates are working in their fields, with 30 percent employed in the games industry.
Some of the grads have high-level roles within Microsoft, including Ryan Nadel, who is a senior program manager. “He’s doing some really cool things with the HoloLens 2,” Chenard said.
Another grad, Christine Clark, is managing director of Thinkingbox in Toronto, which is one of Canada’s largest interactive production studios.
Yet another, Angela Hamilton, is the cofounder and CEO of Quupe, which is a platform for sharing recreational items.
A member of the first cohort, Yangos Hadjiyannis, is cofounder of Kreis Immersive Spaces, which combines virtual reality with physical spaces to create what it calls “spectacular social moments”.
Chenard was at the Centre for Digital Media when it opened and he feels it’s made tremendous strides over the years.
“There’s still a ways to go,” he said. “I just want to see more interactions between industry and academia, especially as it leads toward the future in emerging industries. I’m very proud of the work that my colleagues—and especially our students and alumni—have done to make this unique project a success.”