In a computer lab in downtown Davenport, a group of 14 students is exploring and training for what could be the next generation of digital jobs.
As the first students of the new EON Innovation Academy at Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, the group is delving into the world of Virtual Reality, or VR, and Augmented Reality, of AR. For the next 11 months, they will learn to create VR and AR content and software applications — 3-D tools that will ultimately change how employees train, students learn and products are designed.
"This is something that is going to be a game-changer for the Quad-Cities to have here," Ellen Kabat-Lensch, Eastern Iowa's vice chancellor for workforce and economic development, said of the academy.
The program — a partnership of the college and the Irvine, California-based EON — will create a new skill set in the manufacturing-based Quad-Cities. Working with EON, identified as the world leader in VR/AR-based knowledge transfer for industry, education and edutainment, the newfound skills could serve as a future economic driver for the region.
"Almost any industry can utilize this technology," Kabat-Lensch said. "EON realizes this is just going to skyrocket, and they need people to develop the content."
Once trained, the students also could work in various industries ranging from architecture to engineering, education, game creation, multimedia design and more. The curriculum will train them to be 3D artists, modelers and programmers.
The technology's use and reach "is only limited by your imagination," said James Noord, Eastern Iowa's IT Department coordinator. "It's like adding the computer generation to reality."
As more virtual markets develop, he said, so will the demand for a trained workforce.
"We're going to be the center of excellence to develop this content," he said. "The Quad-Cities could become the Silicon Prairie."
Joshua Drake, Eastern Iowa's VR Training Initiatives project manager, said the students will spend the first four months in the classroom being taught by visiting EON professionals from around the globe.
"Phase Two is the project phase, where they will be working in teams on real EON projects," he said.
The projects will have the students working with EON's VR experts as mentors and the company's clients, many of which are Fortune 500 companies.
Marcin Kasica, EON Reality's global education and training director, was the first of EON's experts to visit Davenport to launch the inaugural class earlier this month. The native of Poland said the students will become specialists in creating VR and AR applications for commercial, education and entertainment uses.
"They'll learn how to look at something that exists or will exist in the future and create a 3-D model of it," he said. "Using VR, they also then can create something that will be understood better, remembered better."
Kasica said VR will be the technology of the future.
"It is how we're going to be watching television, making decisions on purchasing ... I do believe this is going to be the next step of the digital revolution," he said.
Kevin Glowacki and Verlee Washington, who are both Eastern Iowa employees and students, are enrolled in the new class.
''They say there will be 2.5 million jobs in VR, and there are only 100,000 people out there who can do it," said Glowacki, who hopes to be the college's first full-time VR instructor. "So the job openings are going to be there for a number of years."
Washington, a VR lab assistant, also thinks the technology will open new doors for her.
"I definitely want to be a teacher in the beginning, but I love developing content for just about anything," she said.
First announced in March 2016, the academy is a three-year partnership between Eastern Iowa and EON Reality. It was announced on the heels of the college unveiling its new Virtual Reality lab at its Advanced Technology Environmental and Energy Center, which also now houses the innovation academy.
The program will relocate to Eastern Iowa's new urban campus, now under construction in downtown Davenport, and become "one of our signature programs," Kabat-Lensch said. "This is going to raise our game in training."
In addition, she said future plans call for EON and Eastern Iowa to develop an Interactive Digital Center, through which EON could market the VR/AR services to area companies.
"EON would like to be able to create applications for our businesses and industry," she said.
The Quad-Cities is one of only four U.S. cities with an EON Innovation Center, joining Dallas, New York City and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Worldwide, the company has established more than a dozen sites, including Manchester, UK; Laval, France; Tshwane, South Africa; Ebene, Mauritius; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Melbourne, Australia; and Dubai, UAE.
Kabat-Lensch credits Noord with introducing EON to the college.
"Had he not connected us and said, 'We can do that,' it may not have happened," she said.
In his earlier career, Noord had experience with EON and was familiar with its software development. After a visit to EON's headquarters, Eastern Iowa Chancellor Don Doucette and college district board members were convinced about the future of the emerging technology.
The college district then invited EON to the Quad-Cities, arranging meetings with a cross-section of community leaders.
"They decided they liked the ecosystem here and liked our size, being a little smaller," Kabat-Lensch said. "They were amazed we could pull together municipalities, industry and labor."
Eastern Iowa has an exclusivity agreement with EON in which it agrees not to open any other schools in Iowa or Illinois, with the exception of Chicago, said Drake, who was hired last fall to be the college's project manager. He previously was senior project engineer at Underwriter's Laboratory in Newton, Iowa.
Noord and Kabat-Lensch think several Quad-City attributes attracted EON to the region, from its workforce to the college's education system, the healthy relationship between the college and business and industry and the region's manufacturing strength.
VR job opportunities
"What the school represents is an opportunity for people to stay here and grow here," said Noord, who became an adjunct faculty member in 2001 and joined the district full time in 2014.
He said the VR program builds on the college's gaming and modeling courses launched a few years ago. But the benefit of the VR program is that students will be working with and learning from the experts in this field. Upon completion, they will receive a certificate in VR and AR/content development.
According to Kabat-Lensch, EON's goal is to hire many of the students it trains here or at its other academies worldwide.
"But (the college) also is going to want to hire some, not only to run the VR program but to insert this (technology) into our other classes."
EON's Kasica said part of the company's mission with its schools is "to spread knowledge about Virtual Reality."
"We're building jobs for the future," he said.