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New master's program, emerging tech lab prepare students for what's next

ASU's Next Lab charts the future of skills and tech

Student in orange polo wearing a virtual reality headset while smiling

Photo courtesy the ASU Next Lab

October 12, 2023

When Jesus Franco Yescas started his undergraduate classes in informatics at Arizona State University, he dreamt of taking that degree even further. He wanted a program that allowed him to not only use technology to conceptualize a better future for himself and others, but one that also allowed him to create it. 

Now, Franco Yescas is among the first cohort within the new Media Arts and Sciences (Extended Reality Technologies) master’s program, offered by the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, through which he is learning to develop the technologies and software used to create virtual worlds and immersive experiences. 

In addition to his studies, he puts his passion for computer science and creativity to work at ASU’s Next Lab (formerly Learning Futures) — joining a team of studio associates who are charting the future of skills and technology.

“The growth that I've had while working at Next Lab isn’t only technical skills like programming, coding,” he said. “I’ve also gotten to do public speaking and learning to work with teams.”

The team at Next Lab is reimagining how they advance the future technology and skills required to power next-generation solutions — such as spatial computing, artificial intelligence, 5G networks and immersive technologies. 

“We’re building upon the success of Learning Futures, and setting our sights on areas of technology that are poised to have significant impact on society,” said Dan Munnerley, executive director of Next Lab.

Learning Futures was instrumental in contributing to ASU’s innovation, including the conceptual development and design of Dreamscape Learn’s immersive learning lab and the creation of the Zoom Innovation Lab, a first-of-its-kind partnership that combines ASU’s world-class education with Zoom’s industry-leading technology. 

Today, Next Lab is taking a reimagined approach to creating what’s next for a digitally enhanced society. With a focus on three areas — exploring emerging technologies, cultivating future-ready skills, and activating interdisciplinary collaboration — the team focuses on “bridging the gap between imagination and reality.”

Creating what’s next, now 

Critical to advancing work is empowering a community of future-focused thinkers and creators to imagine, build and play with technologies to positively shape society. Working with teams across the university, community groups and industry leaders, Next Lab can identify ways in which we can enhance interactions with emerging technology. 

“When an idea is introduced to the Next Lab, it goes through a series of steps in a future-focused design process unique to the lab,” Munnerley said. The process includes:  

  • Establishing transdisciplinary collaboration to ensure a diversity of thought, experience and values are brought together to surface the ultimate impact — upwards of seven generations into the future. 

  • Exploring emerging technologies — new, emerging and not yet in existence — with a lens toward positively impacting society. 

  • Cultivating future-ready skills by bringing together groups of experts and students to form specialist guilds that can design and develop new ideas and proof of concepts. 

Next Lab continues to work from the creative studio space on the second floor of Creativity Commons on ASU’s Tempe campus. 

That’s where you’ll find Franco Yescas most days, working alongside fellow management intern Amanda Federico to guide a team of 40 students — known as studio associates — in the design and development efforts. 

Organized into seven guilds, these communities of practice form around a future skill, including 3D modeling and animation, game development, digital storytelling and cloud infrastructure. 

When reflecting on past projects, Franco Yescas talks about Huddle, a virtual reality learning tool he worked on to immerse students in new environments. “The instructor puts up prompts and models (into the virtual environment) that the students can interact with and look at while they explain the concept,” he explained.

In fact, ASU students in a HST 130 course explored the terrains on World War I from inside Huddle last year.

Making these experiences is kind of a dream job to me,” Franco Yescas said. “So I really do feel lucky having this as my first job.

Enterprise Technology leaders Timothy Summers and Warick Pond recently joined Munnerley at Next Lab to expand the diversity of thought and experience required to move the team’s bold mission forward. Summers arrives with a focus on orchestrating technological innovation, introducing practitioner-scholar wisdom, and cultivating a culture of forward-thinking excellence. Pond brings experience in collaborative decision-making, leading complex digital transformations, and exploratory initiatives in emerging technology.

Toby Vaughn Kidd and Bea Rodriguez-Fransen are also co-founders, key contributors and leaders of the Next Lab. 

Keep up with creating what’s next at ASU and beyond at

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