Back in April I went on a tour of the new UCF School of Digital Media, Film, and Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, also known as the "video game school" that is a joint venture of Electronic Arts and the University of Central Florida. Phase II of the renovation of the old Orlando Expo Centre was completed in time for the building's official opening day last week, and just prior to that I was invited to tour the completed phase and take a look at the yet-to-be-renovated Phase III. This latest phase contains classroom space, student lounge areas, and a large "cube farm" of student workspace.
The main entryway of Phase II is actually just a large hallway that leads between the office spaces of Phase I and the new classroom and workspace areas in Phase II. As more funding becomes available and students complete projects, this area will be decorated with various media-related artwork. For now a television displays a cable TV channel, but eventually it will also show student-created video projects, such as animation demos and video game clips.
A lot of money has been poured into the student lounge areas. In their free time students can make use of the flatscreen plasma televisions to watch DirectTV channels and DVDs, both educational (animation demos and instructional guides) and entertainment (the latest movies). The educational discs are provided by the school. Top-of-the-line PCs running Windows XP are available in this lounge, complete with Logitech keyboards, optical mouse units, and game controllers. Apple and Linux computers are in other such places. Here students are encouraged to play games, technically considered "homework". Magazines discussing relevant gaming topics (both creation and reviews) are provided free of charge.
Students are encouraged to make use of the lounge spaces. The theory is that since so many students will be spending so many long hours at the building, they should feel free to crash and relax whenever they like and enjoy themselves. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before students start to bring in their own game consoles and connect them to the televisions. Each lounge is dimly lit, kept cool, and is very conducive to relaxation. Food and drink are allowed in the lounges provided nobody spills anything and destroys the equipment in the process. At $70,000 for the two year program, nobody wants to have to replace a plasma television on top of paying tuition.
Down the hall from the lounge spaces are staff offices and the "cafeteria". I found the cafeteria to be the most controversial part of the facility, and I sincerely hope my guide was joking when he said that this little room with a snack machine, microwave, refrigerator, and coffee pot was to serve student food needs so they wouldn't have to leave the building and stop working on projects to get something to eat. Knowing how Electronic Arts tends to work their people into the ground, it wouldn't surprise me if he was telling the truth. When I asked if he was serious about this, he said they plan to expand the dining options as time goes on based on student demands. I sincerely hope they do so sooner than later. UPDATE: The guide was joking and there are plenty of dining options available for students.
Most of the classroom space is in Phase I of the building, but Phase II has a few as well. These are smaller classrooms, designed for a more intensive and personal teaching experience as opposed to a lecture-style class with hundreds of students. For some inexplicable reason the whiteboard was placed where a fire alarm needed to go in this classroom. I'm sure they'll fix that in the next version of the building, of course. Each of these classrooms contains a drop-down screen and a ceiling-mounted projector for showing slides or video as well.
After all of that relaxing, snacking, and instruction, it's time to get some work done. A single large room houses open-air cubicles, allowing two students to share a single workspace for working on group projects. Each cubicle desk contains two docking stations for laptop computers (a $3,000 Dell laptop is given to each student to keep as part of the program) and the required peripherals and network connections to make it all work. This particular room has space for dozens of students to work all at once, and although no one student is assigned to a particular space, it's expected that students will pick a place and basically set up shop there for the duration of the semester.
So what's next for the UCF School of Digital Media, Film, and Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy? Once funding is in place work will begin on Phase III where crews will continue to turn the old drab Expo Centre into a bright, vivid place filled with new technology and overworked students. Currently only one hundred students are enrolled in the program, and UCF wants to keep the enrollment low for now to sure that each student has access to the equipment and assistance that they need. Graduates of the program stand to be hired right out of school by Electronic Arts, either to work on the next iteration of Madden or to develop an original idea created during the program itself. There's even talk of the two companies buying out the Marriott Hotel next door to the facility and turning it into a dormitory so the students never have to venture very far from the area.
I'll have the chance to tour Phase III once it begins construction, so keep your eye on Press The Buttons for more from the UCF School of Digital Media, Film, and Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy in the future.