A step into the future: Advanced Media Lab and Esports combine in new home

AML Ribbon Cutting

Blue, purple, orange and pink lighting all converged together over a center console of computer stations, creating a futuristic atmosphere. Dell sponsors, along with the lab coordinators, stood alongside President Rita Cheng as she cut the ribbon Tuesday, marking the grand opening of the new Advanced Media Lab (AML) housed in the School of Communication at Northern Arizona University. The lab’s mission is to expand the possibilities of communication through technology. Faculty, staff and students took the opportunity to view the new lab and try out the new technologies.

The new lab brings greater innovation to the learning experience offered at NAU and also houses the Esports team, a competitive video gaming enterprise.

“The AML is a collaborative space and supports one of our university’s most important initiatives, providing student-centered and diverse educational experiences,” Cheng said. “Here we offer undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to expand their boundaries and apply their in-class knowledge to grant-supported projects.”

The lab originally started in 2015 as a virtual reality lab developed by lab directors Norm Medoff, professor of communication, and Giovanni Castillo, lecturer of communication. The growth was possible in large part because of investment from Chief Information Officer Steven Burrell and ITS staff.

“We started in a closet upstairs. Giovanni renovated the closet and we got six computer stations in there,” Medoff said.

Five years later, an empty space—once used for surplus storage—has been turned into a 2,000-square-foot lab that offers undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to collaborate with scholars and researchers on grant-funded projects. The lab has expanded from virtual reality into emerging media, which includes a variety of technologies for students. Mobile development, augmented and virtual reality, filmmaking, aerial drone cinematography, motion capture and—most recently—Esports are all new additions that students can learn from and utilize on a daily basis.

AML Center Console

Esports is organized competitive online gaming played at the professional level. Games are often multiplayer video games and teams hold practice sessions to hone their skills before competitions.

A competitive Esports team attracts potential sponsorships, scholarships and plenty of research opportunities. The AML houses the NAU Esports team consisting of more than 200 members and five competitive teams.

Senior Gabriel Santos, president of the Esports club, is impressed by the sudden growth of the lab and how fast everything has come together.

“I’m excited to have the proper equipment,” Santos said. “Playing on laptops is like the equivalent of a baseball player playing with a plastic bat. We won’t be limited by hardware anymore.”

Another student on the team, senior in university studies Devlin Nipper said, “It’s exciting to see the crossover of video sports and academia. It used to be such a taboo idea.”

Instead of taboo, students’ natural interest in Esports was seen as an opportunity to build a curriculum around those interests and as a way to help students build skills for a future career. A certificate in Esports is being developed that will be offered to students in any major. This semester, the AML is teaching two courses (CMF 251 and CMF 252) that include sports management, stream-casting and public relations for Esports.

“The Esports industry is booming, not just in universities,” Medoff said. “There are leagues in cities all over the country and that takes not just the competitors, but it takes support people like the management people, the stream-casters and the visual designers.”

Students in public relations learn to produce promo videos and take photographs of the players. Stream-casters learn the skills needed to appropriately call a game.

AML Stream Casting“We’re teaching them skills that are related to communications,” Castillo said. “Everything we do is something that could support that. It’s a learning activity around something they love to do and that’s just one of the many areas we can work on to develop media proficiencies.”

Both Medoff and Castillo acknowledge video games are common culture for students, and now they’re able to turn that interest into work on research projects. Skills such as motion capture can be understood through video games, but the knowledge and process to capture motion can be extrapolated out to research work on prosthetics. It’s a different way to learn that mixes play and research together.

The AML’s goal is to foster two specific types of learning, experiential and interdisciplinary learning.

“Experiential learning is learning by doing. If you want to teach someone how to kick a soccer ball, you could talk to them about it or, you could go on the field and play with them,” Castillo said. “By learning through the experience of repetition and collaboration, you get them to learn with an objective or purpose in mind.”

The key is “learning experiences.” Many students have short attention spans and learn in small snippets. Some students learn by reading or listening, but others learn better by engaging more senses directly with the material.

Sophomore Dadric Riggs and senior Oly Noneza, both on the VR development team, worked directly with 3D modeling software on a new video game involving seasons that will be an exploratory game and a foundation for incorporating VR later.

“Interdisciplinary learning is important and it’s talked about a lot in the university,” Castillo said. “We remain in silos a lot of the time. So the question is, how do you create environments where people from different disciplines work together and gain the unique rich experiences that come from that?”

AML Computers

The AML creates an informal space where students and researchers can work on these grant-funded projects that cross many departments of the university, bringing experts from several fields into one space where everyone can learn from each other.

“With an informal education like this, we can do it interdisciplinary work a lot easier because people can mix freely, it’s not a set class format,” Castillo said.

So far, the AML has written more than $8 million in grants and received its first NSF Grant in collaboration with Lowell Observatory to study meteor strikes. Lowell is interested in having the lab design a front-end visualization for a large database that tracks meteor strikes. The database will be updated continuously to represent the latest strikes.

“It’s really big data meets graphics and visualization,” Medoff said. “We’re going to have a big screen that Giovanni describes as a wall-sized iPad that’s going to represent meteor strikes.”

“It’s all the same skills for video games but we’re applying it to really hardcore scientific education, and that’s the basis of our vision,” Castillo said. “Get people in here to play, get them to learn an interest, commit to that interest and then participate in the research.”

Whether incoming students are interested in Esports or research grants, the goal of AML and the new space is to make it functional and able to handle the student load coming in. With the development of the new certificate and continued work to pull in grant money, the AML’s capabilities will continue to grow.

“I’ve been a professor for a long time and the student energy and talent always amazes me,” Medoff said. “We can put all the technology in that we want, but student energy is the ingredient we add to this space. We’re excited about everything.”