Higher Education and Technology

Ferris State program not ‘playing’ around

University’s digital animation and game design major heats up as virtual, augmented reality business grows.

December 16, 2016
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A local university is more serious than ever about artistic and technical work in the digital sphere.

Ferris State University is celebrating its digital animation and game design major’s 13th year, as it looks to the future of digital applications.

The program, also known as DAGD, recently was ranked No. 16 by the Princeton Review in its 2016 rankings of the top 50 undergraduate schools worldwide for game design instruction.

It aims to teach students to edit, manipulate and develop digital video and design; create 3D game level modifications; develop interactive websites; build content for leading game designs; and prepare students for film, game design and asset creation, medical visualization, educational software and game/animation development.

Students in the program now produce — among many other things —more realistic video game designs, 3D visualizations for the furniture industry and virtual and augmented reality that creates an “experience” for corporations aiming to market their products.

Sophomore Kenton Reynolds currently is focused on “all things 3D,” including 3D modeling and sculpting of buildings and characters. He said his first instinct is to dispel misconceptions about the program.

“I’d like to talk about this program in general to people who aren’t sure what it is,” he said. “When you say I’m a digital animation and game design student, they say, ‘Oh, video games?’ I say it’s a lot more than that. Also, playing games and making games are two different things.”

He said his favorite aspect of majoring in DAGD is the ability to work alongside students who are as passionate and dedicated as he is.

“It’s a big community, and we help each other out,” he said. “If there’s criticism that we have that we want to give someone, we take it as constructive criticism. We don’t hammer on each other’s work. We build each other up. It makes us better artists and game creators in the end.”

All the Grand Rapids DAGD courses are taught at Grand Rapids Community College and FSU’s Applied Technology Center on the campus of GRCC, 151 Fountain St. NE.

Coordinator David Baker said the program was launched in Grand Rapids and spread to the Big Rapids campus two years ago. It now has 300 students between the two campuses.

One of the big benefits to having it at GRCC, he said, is the symbiotic nature of the partnership. Ferris students can take GRCC liberal arts classes, such as writing, anthropology and psychology, which count toward their Ferris degree.

“It offers a great value because the students can do 40 to 45 percent of their degree through GRCC,” he said. “It’s a huge cost savings.

“Also, if you’re a Kent County resident, you can get in-district tuition.”

FSU has forged another partnership with Kent Career Technical Center, where Baker is an advisory staff member. He said KCTC high school students can earn credit for college-level courses.

“Some of our best students have come from KCTC,” he said.

Baker said the DAGD program, which requires a minimum GPA of 2.5, has “two legs”: the artistic side and the programming side. He said some people just want to “make magic” with the artistic side, but the program requires dual learning.

“We do require that artists learn programming and the programmers learn art. By the time they’re sophomores and juniors, they can be focusing on their particular craft,” he said.

The future already is here, Baker said, when it comes to career applications for the degree beyond game design. Virtual reality and augmented reality are two of the current trends.

Virtual reality, which is a completely computer-generated simulation of an environment or 3D image, has practical applications for companies that want to show off their merchandise.

Baker said his junior class students made a VR experience for a recreational vehicle company to use at a trade show so they wouldn’t have to bring a $200,000 RV with them.

He said he tried out the experience and “felt like I was on a camping trip.”

“It was to the point where I was in this virtual reality world for about 10 minutes, in the RV and opening the cupboards and stuff, and when I took off the VR goggles and found myself in a conference room, I was really disappointed,” he said.

“It was like going back to Kansas after being in Oz.”

Baker said augmented reality, which superimposes a computer-generated image onto a user’s view of the real world, is going to be even bigger than virtual reality.

“Let’s say you want to see what something looks like in your living room — a lamp for instance. What will it look like on that table? You would put that visor on and it would show up on your table. You could walk around it from all angles and decide, ‘Is this something I want to buy?’” he said.

“It can be a virtual showroom, but even more powerful would be the training center where you can walk up to a machine that’s broken and your (augmented) reality device will recognize that machine and tell you what ‘s wrong with it and how to fix it.”

Reynolds imagines a day when he can work at an animation studio like Disney, bringing characters to life on the big screen.

Jay Hoelscher, founder of Grand Rapids-based creative agency ThinkChromatic, was a 2009 graduate of the DAGD program. Now, he is an adjunct professor for the program, as well as a business owner.

Much like Reynolds, he had big goals for his career post-college — and he said having had the chance to start ThinkChromatic and do what he loves is his “dream job.”

“The business that I was doing work for (when I started out), Custer Office, didn’t have a 100 percent focus on digital animation and game design. I was really geared toward photorealism. Essentially, as I learned over the years that their core business didn’t really align with goals I had set up, it made more sense to start my own company,” he said.

“It’s one of the biggest things that was enticing to me — the thought of complete freedom.”

Baker said he thinks the future is bright, as students such as Hoelscher and Reynolds continue to move through the DAGD program and more minorities and females join its ranks.

“There’s so much that can happen, and we’re just looking forward to partnering with students, professors and the industry to make amazing things happen,” he said.

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