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In the MIX: ASU looks to the future with new emerging technologies building, faculty, programs


A woman uses a virtual reality headset at a digital showcase event.
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February 28, 2022

Arizona State University is assembling a dream team to train the creative workforce of the future and building facilities that will allow graduates to take advantage of open positions in emerging technology. 

“Everyone is talking about the evolving metaverse and how our lives — work, education, social, cultural — will move seamlessly between physical and virtual worlds,” said Steven J. Tepper, dean and director of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “These worlds need to be artful and imaginative and create a greater range of human empathy, creativity and expression. We are assembling the world’s best engineers, artists, designers and storytellers across three cities, with access to every technology imaginable.”

In December, led by Assistant Professor Robert LiKamWa, ASU students demonstrated how they used virtual reality to explore climate change and presented a class project they developed in Dreamscape Learn, a new fully immersive VR learning system for the ASU community and beyond. Their audience included ASU President Michael Crow and Walter Parkes, the Hollywood producer who is now CEO of Dreamscape Immersive

“These emerging technologies will change the future, and ASU will drive how these technologies are applied,” said Jacob Pinholster, associate dean of enterprise design and operations in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Pinholster is the founding director of ASU’s Media and Immersive eXperience (MIX) Center, which is part of the new ASU at Mesa City Center, and head of graduate programs in interdisciplinary digital media and performance design. 

“We don’t know of any other place that has gathered this many people, degree programs, facilities and partners all together for this purpose,” Pinholster said.

An exterior photo of the ASU at Mesa building under construction

The new ASU at Mesa City Center (shown in mid-October) is scheduled to open during the fall semester. The building will house production studios, screening venues, gallery and more. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Slated to open to students in the fall of this year, the MIX Center is a state-of-the-art emerging media technologies facility that will serve as the new home for The Sidney Poitier New American Film School as well as house top-ranked programs in digital media technology, worldbuilding, experience design and gaming from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. This includes a trio of new transdisciplinary graduate programs that bring together researchers, designers and engineers to leverage XR technologies, immersive experience design and practices for public impact. 

“The MIX Center aims to bring together the most speculative and imaginative XR and related technologies,” said Pavan Turaga, director of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, “for themes like the Future of Work, AI for Social Good, and Design Justice.”

These themes, Turaga said, are high priority for the Herberger Institute and the Fulton Schools, as well as for community partners and external sponsors.

Bob Bonniol, creative director for MODE Studios, calls ASU’s approach “fantastic — the very first entirely integrated approach to the new channels, tools and opportunities of our art forms.” 

The three new graduate degrees are housed in three different schools and include courses from several other schools as well. The degrees — the Master of Science in digital culture with a concentration in extended realities technology; the Master of Science in design with a concentration in experience design; and the Master of Science in futures and design (pending approval) — share a core curriculum, which allows students to build a multidisciplinary team of collaborators. Classes include Urban DX: Real Time Urban Digital Explorations, for which the city of Mesa will serve as an urban exploration hub for the visualization of real-time public data, and​​ Worldbuilding Arizona Climate Futures, in which students will work with community partners to co-create and imagine potential climate futures in Arizona through a process of collective co-creation and visualization.

​​“ASU shows a deep-seated commitment to preparing students for the future of work,” said Joanna Popper, global head of virtual reality, go-to-market at HP. “The extraordinary combined curricula being offered across the new emerging media and immersive programs in Los Angeles and the deep slate of new hires who will be teaching at the state-of-the-art facility in Mesa, Arizona, will have a strong positive impact on this nascent industry.”

The MIX Center will be a world-class facility for emerging media technologies second to none. Special features include:

  • A four-story, 3,200-square-foot, 150-person-capacity enhanced immersion studio that will serve as a high-end performance venue and an experimental media space, equipped with cutting-edge rigging, lighting and audiovisual systems.
  • A 5,700-square-foot, 285-seat movie theater meeting Dolby specifications for production facilities and featuring high-end projection and sound for movie screenings, lectures, live events, livestreaming and more, as well as for sound mixing and color grading.
  • Some 8,100 square feet of professional-quality soundstages/production studios with top-notch acoustic isolation, an automated lighting grid, advanced camera systems and more.
  • A professionally equipped 1,200-square-foot, high-end recording studio and teaching studio capable of mastering studio-quality audio for films, games and music, as well as sound for interactive and immersive experiences. 
  • Twelve editing bays, two color-finishing suites, a color-grading screening room and three sound-editing suites, giving students and faculty access to professional quality post-production capabilities.
  • A 2,400-square-foot makerspace for students and the community, featuring workstations for 3D printing, laser cutting, circuit fabrication and more. 

The center’s 2,000-square-foot lobby will serve as communal space, breezeway and gallery, with hackable surfaces for installation, mega-battens for sound/lighting/sensor install and a 32-foot-long monumental display.

“This lobby has been designed to be infinitely moldable to student, faculty and community designs for how to hack it, play media on it and create endless immersive experiences within it,” Pinholster said. “It breaks down the conventional limitations of a ‘hallway.’”

A key component of what the city of Mesa envisions as a digital innovation district, the MIX Center began as part of a collaboration between ASU and the city and is designed to be fully embedded in the surrounding community as a hive of cultural exchange and public programming and events . 

At the building’s groundbreaking in 2020, Mesa Mayor John Giles said, “ASU will be training the workforce of the future right here in Mesa, and the business world has its eyes on us.” 

“There’s nothing like (the MIX Center) in the U.S.,” said Ana Herruzo, an associate professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and The Design School who has been assisting Pinhoster with the center and its programs. “It’s groundbreaking media production. The building can be fully synchronized — everything can be programmed. It’s such an amazing facility.”

The Sidney Poitier New American Film School in the Herberger Institute, one of the largest, most egalitarian film and interactive media programs in the country, will have a home at the MIX Center, as well as at the ASU California Center in Los Angeles. The school’s Bachelor of Fine Arts in film and media production program will operate its production and post-production activities out of the MIX Center. 

“The commitment to teaching and research around the most cutting-edge immersive technologies at ASU runs true and deep, and nowhere is this more apparent than the extraordinary opportunities afforded by MIX,” said Nonny de la Peña, founding director of ASU’s Narrative and Emerging Media program and a professor of practice in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the film school. “Together with the direct connection to the narrative industries through our program and facilities in Los Angeles, ASU is providing extraordinary opportunities to advance the field.” 

The ASU California Center, the locus for ASU student engagement and activity in California, is housed in the historic Herald Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles. A world-class immersive and inclusive media hub, it’s home to the new graduate degree in narrative and emerging media, as well as to a joint graduate degree in global affairs and management (creative industries) offered by the Herberger Institute and ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management. The building also serves as the academic base for The Sidney Poitier New American Film School’s Semester in L.A. program. State-of-the-art facilities in the center include a dozen machines ready for graphic processing, game design and virtual production, and a virtual production stage.

A third location, ASU's Tempe campus, is home to the Herberger Institute's graduate degrees in creative enterprise and cultural leadership and in innovation and venture development, as well as to undergraduate degrees in digital culture, and serves as an anchor for both Mesa and Los Angeles.

“Anybody who wants a foothold in this new world — whether you are a student or a company or a community leader — can benefit from what we have put together,” Tepper said.

Top photo: A woman uses a VR headset at the School of Arts, Media and Engineering’s Digital Culture Showcase in 2019.

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