By partnering with Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University on an innovation lab, Joe Van Harken and Jeff Joanisse want to explore the use of an emerging technology and cultivate needed talent.
Van Harken and Joanisse, who are partners at Grand Haven-based Th3rd Coast Digital Solutions, see a bold future for the use of extended reality, or XR, particularly in manufacturing with today’s drive toward greater automation, the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0, all of which are revolutionizing the sector.
“We are on the cusp of a major revolution in terms of computing,” Van Harken said.
To take advantage of that moment, Th3rd Coast Digital Solutions formed a partnership for the Emerging Technology Innovation Lab at Kendall College’s Fountain Street campus in downtown Grand Rapids.
The innovation lab will bring together businesses, students and academics “to explore, experiment, and create the next generation of spatial computing experiences,” according to Kendall College. The idea is “to create experiences that are very intuitive” and “easy to navigate and very user-friendly” for people to use when applying the technology, Joanisse said.
“A lot of it is timing that’s happening right now. There’s a lot of industry that is getting on board with Industry 4.0 and there’s now augmented reality tools that allow a human-computer interface to happen easily,” Van Harken said.
Through the Emerging Tech Innovation Lab at Kendall College, the partners at Th3rd Coast Digital Solutions want to provide opportunities for middle-market businesses to inexpensively “test the waters” in a low-risk setting and “start to understand and leverage this technology,” he said.
“Maybe folks that have been thinking about it but really haven’t pulled the trigger yet, we can work with them directly and do a consultation on proof of concept,” Van Harken said. “The price ticket on that might be out of their comfort zone because the technology is experimental and ‘oh, I don’t know if I want to drop X thousand (dollars) on a pilot of something in this new space.’
“But if we create an avenue with the innovation lab that lowers the cost on that, leverages some new insight from students to really move this mission forward a little bit, and creates an experience that’s easily understandable for the company, then they get that taste in an affordable way. And they’re contributing to this next phase of what’s really going to be necessary.”
The lab also can develop the design talent in augmented reality for companies that will need to adopt and implement the technology. Additionally, the lab can help Kendall develop a new curriculum “that speaks to this space specifically,” Joanisse said.
In today’s design students, Th3rd Coast Digital Solutions looks to tap a younger generation that’s tech-savvy, grew up in the highly connected Digital Age, and is long accustomed to technology’s role in their everyday lives.
Through projects involving Kendall College design students, Th3rd Coast Digital Solutions hopes to gain new perspectives on applying extended reality, a term that collectively covers virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies.
“We need people who can do this. If we can take some of the talented designers and provide them an opportunity to play in this area and to experiment and to bring their young perspectives as Millennials who have grown up with electronic devices, we’re going to get some ideas that we wouldn’t have thought of,” Van Harken said. “They’re going to give back to us as much as we’re going to give to them.”
Timing the market
The Emerging Tech Innovation Lab will open early next year with Kendall College’s new semester, said Joan Sechrist, who has worked on the facility’s development since its conceptual stage along with fellow graphic design professor John Koziatek.
When Th3rd Coast Digital Solutions came forward with the concept, Kendall College was immediately interested, Sechrist said. After a Kendall College alum who worked at Th3rd Coast connected the company with the school, the two parties worked for more than a year on the innovation lab.
“The timing is absolutely right,” Sechrist said. “Extended reality is exploding as far as industry is concerned. It’s a new frontier, as it were, and it has direct connections with designers and the opportunities for them. It presents a world of opportunities for designers to help companies and organizations connect with their customers and users in immersive ways.”
The Emerging Tech Innovation Lab plans to start small and will have a capacity for nine students per year to participate. The lab initially will open to graphic design students and later extend to students in other degree programs “once we get our sea legs,” Sechrist said.
“We’re looking for students that are getting excited about the opportunity of experiencing reality,” she said. “They can come from any discipline.”
Sechrist sees the lab expanding capacity in the future, although how soon and by how much is hard to tell right now.
By working directly with Th3rd Coast Digital Solutions and business partners in the Emerging Tech Innovation Lab, Kendall College students can broaden their professional networks.
“It’s an opportunity for them to add to their skills and diversify their portfolios, and opens a wide variety of new career opportunities for them,” Sechrist said.