Centre for Digital Media primes students to thrive as computerized images create parallel realities

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      These days at the Vancouver-based Centre for Digital Media on Great Northern Way, reality takes many forms. There are opportunities to learn to create things in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), to name just three examples.

      According to the school’s director, Richard Smith, students in the master of digital media program are also discovering how to create an appealing ambience in which these various realities can be presented. This is to ensure that it’s not a jarring experience when people cover their eyes completely with a Vive or Oculus headset and enter a parallel universe.

      “It’s kind of like the early days of cinema, where people were just trying new things,” Smith explained to the Georgia Straight by phone. “They weren’t quite sure where it was going to go and what was going to be really popular—and what would be a flop.”

      In movie theatres, patrons are prepared for the experience by walking into dimly lit auditoriums. They get comfy in stadium-style seating and then see large curtains open up, exposing the screens.

      In a similar vein, students at the Centre for Digital Media are experimenting with ways to get users in the mood for VR or AR.

      “It helps to have a transition,” Smith said.

      VR involves creating an entirely new 3-D immersive world; AR, on the other hand, superimposes computer-generated images on the existing world to provide new insights, such as with Pokémon Go. A third R, mixed reality, involves inserting computer-generated enhancements or sensory inputs, such as smells or sounds, into an existing environment.

      “Mixed reality is where you contrive to change not only what people see but also the things around them,” Smith said.

      Examples are the sudden appearance of robots or tables or chairs on a stage in the midst of a play, which the audience could see by wearing headsets.

      The implications of this technology are monumental in everything from education to entertainment and from security to technology. Apple CEO Tim Cook has predicted that people will “have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day”.

      If true, this will create phenomenal opportunities to entrepreneurs who learn how to harness this technology.

      Smith cited one example: surgical education.

      “Think about medical students dealing with cadavers,” he said. “There are only so many cadavers in the world. If you can do some of that in a virtual world…that could save money, that could save time, and, actually—I was just reading a study on this—it can save on the ‘ick’ factor.”

      The director of the Centre for Digital Media, Richard Smith, says the faculty take team teaching extremely seriously.

      Unlike many graduate programs, the Centre for Digital Media does not choose its students with a specific area of expertise. Rather, it accepts people with a broad range of talents so that when they come together, they can learn from one another to create digitally oriented things in groups.

      “We have technical people, artistic people, social and cultural people, and business and science people, and so on,” Smith said. “Being effective on a team, managing people, and being managed are all part of our curriculum. They get lots of opportunities to practise that in their course work and in their big projects.”

      The school emphasizes “active listening”, Smith said, so students can really understand the problems that they may be encountering and trying to solve after they graduate. Education takes place from Mondays to Fridays during the day on a full-time basis.

      “We pack what’s basically a two-year degree into 16 months,” Smith said.

      The Centre for Digital Media opened in 2007 as a partnership between UBC, SFU, the B.C. Institute of Technology, and Emily Carr University of Art + Design. The timing was fortuitous, given the stunning rise of the digital economy over the past decade.

      Smith said a sense of teamwork between institutions extends into classrooms. There’s even a faculty table for professors from other institutions, who are welcome to drop by and offer their expertise.

      “Maria Lantin at Emily Carr has been over,” he revealed. “Bernhard Riecke from the Surrey campus of SFU has been here almost every Monday afternoon, just participating in the class because he is intrigued and inspired by this idea of team teaching.”

      Media-studies students from UBC also visit the campus to take a game-design course. Meanwhile, the Centre for Digital Media is working with BCIT helping with its curriculum on education in VR.

      “All four universities are quite involved with us,” Smith noted.