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by: Scott Bureau November 2013
In a world where people are constantly plugged in, it's important to understand the experiences we have with digital media. RIT's new Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC) hopes to blur the lines between the arts and sciences, and between technology and expression.
The Center is devoted to the burgeoning field of digital media—a field that is changing the way we communicate, the way we learn, and even the way we think. It will provide a broad range of research, development, education, and entrepreneurial activities in support of the exploration of media, arts, games, social interaction, and digital creativity.
The MAGIC Center is comprised of two parts: the RIT Laboratory for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity, a nonprofit university-wide research and development laboratory; and MAGIC Spell Studios, a for-profit production studio that assists in efforts to bring digital media creations up to marketplace standards and commercialization.
"The Center will seek to engage a wide variety of faculty, staff, students, and partners to promote cross and multi-disciplinary collaboration wherever and whenever possible," says Andrew Phelps, founding director of the MAGIC Center. "In addition, MAGIC will strongly encourage and promote entrepreneurial activities for these projects."
Developed from a series of discussions between RIT President Bill Destler and Phelps, the Center seeks to bridge many of the barriers between academia and digital media research and production. While RIT's Center does borrow aspects of digital media programs from several other universities, including Stanford University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, it is adapted to fit RIT's unique structure. It's designed to provide both research and applied production solutions that continue to enhance RIT's exploration of digital and interactive media, games, social software, free and open-source software, simulation, visualization, etc.
"In the digital media field, it's important to remember if you do what someone else has already done before, you're dead," Phelps says.
RIT's official history in digital media dates back to 2001, with the formation of the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences and the first course in game programming, taught by Phelps, the former director of RIT's School of Interactive Games and Media (IGM). Many majors throughout RIT dip into the pool of digital media—including but not limited to new media design in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, new media marketing in the Saunders College of Business, and communication and media technology in the College of Liberal Arts—and there is also a growing focus within the university on "digital humanities."
"The university had developed pockets of expertise in digital media, with a wealth of individuals doing interesting things in the game design, digital humanities, and new media design spaces," says Phelps. "However, RIT is a large campus and people were having difficulty communicating and sharing ideas."
Enter the MAGIC Laboratory—a university-wide, multi- and cross-disciplinary hub where faculty, staff, student researchers, artists, and practitioners come together to create, contextualize, and apply new knowledge to digital media. This work reaches into a multitude of related fields and disciplines, including not only science, technology, engineering, and math, but also their intersection with the arts and humanities. The lab acts as the intellectual and creative home for affiliated faculty from within the School of Interactive Games and Media, as well as faculty affiliates from across the university.
"I envision the space as a place for those water-cooler conversations to happen," says Elizabeth Goins, an assistant professor of fine arts and the museum studies program in RIT's College of Liberal Arts. "People from overlapping fields will come together to collaborate and make projects more dynamic."
Goins says the MAGIC Center will make it easier to recruit student artists and game designers for her projects. Students in her Interactive Design for Museums course—a project-based class that challenges museum studies and game design and development students to actually build a game for a selected museum—can also use the Center's resources.
"The university structure is set up as an excellent learning environment for acquiring knowledge, but not for commercial production," Phelps says. "In today's world, particularly in digital media, it's really difficult to ascertain meaning in your research without really going and seeing its effect on the public and the marketplace."
Some universities encourage their faculty to stay professionally active and have their own companies and production studios. But in establishing MAGIC Spell Studios, Phelps wanted to have faculty members' work aligned with the university. He also noticed that not everyone wants to deal with all the business management extras that come with owning a company.
"Some people love running a business, but I found that many students and faculty just want to make creative products that they can put out in the marketplace without the overhead or that they aren't motivated to create a business until their second or third product," Phelps says. "If the university can act as a third-party publisher, we have more time to focus on research and creative activity."
The MAGIC Center is designed to bridge the gap between research and prototyping, which is a common output of academia, with the ability to bring commercial scale and support to projects. This allows the research and design to have a greater impact on the public than it would in a normal academic setting.
"The commercial production side of the Center also allows the university to employ the financial concepts that make digital media studios work," says Phelps. "Being able to embed a production studio directly into the student experience will provide true professional experience and an amazing learning opportunity."
Walking into the MAGIC Center, visitors will see faculty and students experimenting, designing, and developing their ideas, with plans to create a finished product. Some projects are funded by outside grants, while others are fully or partially funded by the MAGIC Center.
One student group found success with SkyTime, an educational game designed to teach kindergarten through second grade students how to tell time. It was initially developed as a class project in a Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software course designed by Stephen Jacobs, a professor in RIT's School of Interactive Games and Media. After the class, the team of four student-designers from throughout RIT continued to develop the game through the FOSS@MAGIC initiative.
"Today's projects can't be built with a group of students from a single major," says Adam Smith, an associate professor and program chair of the new media design program and affiliate faculty member in the MAGIC Center. "The MAGIC Center is helping to bring together students in an organized team environment that follows the conventions of industry and project planning to implement these solutions."
In July, SkyTime was selected for the White House Champions of Change event, which honors civic hackers who are doing extraordinary things with technology. The team has since tested the game at an elementary school in North Carolina and developed a Spanish version of the game.
"I'm excited to see the MAGIC Center help extend successful student projects after the course has ended," says Jennifer Kotler, a fourth-year medical illustration major from Merrick, N.Y., who works as an artist/designer for FOSS@MAGIC. "The SkyTime team has had the amazing opportunity to continue improving our game, and I can't wait to see where it goes next."
The MAGIC Center is housed in the newly renovated Student Innovation Hall. The space is shared by MAGIC, the Simone Center for Student Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Innovative Learning Institute (ILI).
The fish-bowl shaped space features a production studio, a state-of-the-art computer lab, and entrepreneurial coaching and meeting facilities.
"The new space was developed to enable the MAGIC Center to achieve its mission as a leader in research and exploration of digital media, allow the Innovative Learning Institute to avail itself of some of the newest interactive media for education, and encourage collaboration and innovation among student-entrepreneurs in the Simone Center," says Ryne Raffaelle, RIT vice president for research and associate provost. "The synergies that exist between gaming and interactive media, education and entrepreneurship are undeniable. By co-locating elements of MAGIC, the Simone Center and ILI, we are better able to create an experience for our students that can't be matched anywhere else in the country."