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Academic lab explores future of XR

Th3rd Coast Digital Solutions partners with Kendall College to help students broaden portfolios.

October 25, 2019
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Kendall College of Art and Design students will be exploring real-world applications for emerging technologies in the workplace. Courtesy Th3rd Coast Media Solutions

A new student innovation lab will help businesses innovate design solutions dealing with emerging technologies.

Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University is partnering with Grand Haven-based Th3rd Coast Digital Solutions to open the student XR Innovation Lab, where students and industry leaders will explore business design solutions dealing with XR — an umbrella term that refers to the emerging technologies of virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and more.

By working hands-on with the latest in emerging technology and learning directly from industry experts and business leaders, the goal is for students to broaden their portfolios and professional network while unlocking new career pathways.

The focus of the lab is to target how emerging technologies will reshape digital communications and human-computer interactions, working to identify new approaches and tools for companies to move from 2D to 3D interfaces, said Joseph Van Harken, co-founder and chief strategy officer for Th3rd Coast.

Van Harken said the idea for the lab was trigged by a 2018 Forbes article, “VR And AR Mark The Greatest Revolution In The History Of UX/UI Design,” which addresses the “paradigm shift” that the future of XR will bring about and the pioneering potential early adopters will have.

“Every time you interface with a computer, you go to some kind of flat screen, whether it's your phone or your computer. Now, all of a sudden, big computer input possibilities are all around us and can be embedded in 3D space in our real world,” Van Harken said.

However, there are no standards or principles defined on how to best use this technology moving forward, he said. The students’ role will be to help determine the best way to guide someone through an interface in a way that's intuitive and enabling, Van Harken said, because “any new technology is kind of useless until it's usable.”

“As it grows and spreads through our everyday world — but especially our professional world — the sooner we get to having usable, consumable experiences, the faster the benefits of this digital transformation will be felt across enterprise.”

The goal is to establish a pipeline for businesses, particularly those that want to learn more about emerging technologies but don’t necessarily have the resources to invest in it.

“This pipeline can really onboard any kind of enterprise business, small or global scale, to try out and see where the benefits of this technology could be within their corporate culture,” Van Harken said.

Th3rd Coast works with clients to solve business problems using digital tools. Van Harken said his company’s services have seemed particularly valuable in the corporate world with the Industry 4.0 movement. 

The problem is XR is such a new concept that people often have difficulty understanding what it is and how it can be used.

Following the trend of companies partnering with academic institutions, he thought partnering with a local design school would be a good way to innovate some industry best practices.

He thinks using students to explore the possibilities will be helpful because they have fresh ideas and the latest generation of students has grown up with connected devices. And their ideas will be guided by professors who are experts in the field.

The students will be led by KCAD graphic design professors Joan Sechrist and John Koziatek, who have worked with Th3rd Coast since the lab’s conceptual stages.

Van Harken said they have all spent about a year and a half designing the curriculum, which will include the basics of XR and Th3rd Coast’s experiences to date.

“We want our students to become designers and artists who are also problem-solvers and critical thinkers highly skilled in communication and collaboration,” Sechrist said. “So, it’s absolutely critical that we provide them with immersive, real-world learning experiences that connect their creativity to other industries, disciplines and communities.”

The program will take place during the fall, winter and summer terms starting next year. Three students will be selected each term to participate in the program. The students could be different or the same each term.

Each term, students will work on specific projects, focusing on understanding the new technology, understanding what’s already been tried and developing new approaches. The projects will culminate in a prototype and a paper that describes their results. His hope is to work on two to three projects each term.

The experiences students develop will be showcased on Th3rdEyeXR, the sister nonprofit news organization established by Th3rd Coast co-founders Van Harken and Jeff Joanisse. Th3rdEyeXR also will host an XR expert discussion series, wherein industry leaders will chat with students and advise on XR development, careers and business opportunities.

“We hope to extend this to other programs at some point,” Van Harken said, “but I felt that because of this glaring gap in the state of the XR industry right now and the need for an evolution or revolution in UX/UI, that it made the most sense to leverage the resources that we have locally.”

The University of Michigan’s Economic Growth Institute gave a matching grant of $40,000 to launch the program. Th3rd Coast is investing $40,000, and KCAD is donating the space and classroom resources.

Th3rd Coast will continue seeking grant money, but Van Harken said he thinks the collaboration can be self-sustaining as the project pipeline takes hold.

He has been in contact with businesses over the past year that are interested, and he is in the process of finalizing commitments. Part of what has pushed the collaboration through is the positive response from companies toward the idea, he said. 

“But we feel that this problem is bigger than just us,” Van Harken said. “We think it's something that affects the entire global enterprise industry, and we just want to do something about it.

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