When NORCAT’s chief technology officer Ed Wisniewski heard that Algoma University was partnering with tech giant Unity to develop a pool of talent in Northern Ontario, his reaction was succinct:
“It’s about time.”
Wisniewski, who has been creating virtual reality programs with NORCAT for over a decade, said recruiting new employees has been a challenge in recent years. The Unity-Algoma partnership may finally help create a “pipeline” of programmers, Wisniewski said, and ease some pressure on attracting new talent to his award-winning studio.
“We were going down south, hitting Ontario Tech University because they have a Unity program,” Wisniewski said. “We're specifically going there trying to recruit kids from Oshawa, for example, to try to come up here to work. But trying to convince someone to move north is a challenge.”
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“Algoma partnering with Unity, that's awesome, because now I know there's a potential pipeline in the North.”
Unity, a California-based tech giant, bills itself as the world’s leading platform for creating and operating interactive, real-time 3D (RT3D) content.
The company says that 70 per cent of the most popular 1,000 mobile games — including Pokemon Go and Call of Duty mobile — use the platform, and on a yearly average, over 3,000 new projects were started daily using Unity.
Sumbul Syed, Algoma’s director of professional and continuing education, said the school teamed up with Unity because of the company’s push for diversity and inclusion, not just within its own ranks, but reaching into underserved communities that may not be considered a link in the technology world.
That push for equity was something that decision-makers at Algoma connected with.
“We started looking at our lens of social equity and social justice, and we thought this is a great partnership,” Syed said.
“Not only putting technology here that we can all use to widen our scopes, but it's also providing accessibility and tying into our special mission.”
“[Algoma president Asima Vezina] did a fine job of linking what's important to us as an institute — offering education skills, training opportunities, and linking it back to those communities that we care most about,” Syed said.
Algoma’s next generation of coders
Miguel A. Garcia-Ruiz, director of the school of computer science and technology at Algoma’s Sault Ste. Marie campus, said he was excited by the opportunity to provide his students with access to the Unity platform, the company’s expertise and to potentially have a first look at any new tech in development.
That should give them a leg up in the recruitment phase as the Canadian gaming industry continues to expand.
“The Canadian gaming industry is growing fast,” Garcia-Ruiz said. “And it’s always looking for VR and AR specialists.
“That’s just one great opportunity for our students, not just in the Canadian, but the global gaming industry which is growing 10 per cent every year.”
In a 2022 report, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada said 937 videogame companies called Canada their home, with the bulk of the recent growth centred in Ontario and Quebec.
Over 30,000 people work in the industry, the group says, which relies heavily on full-time employees — 80 per cent of the workforce are salaried with an average take-home pay of nearly $80,000.
That’s a group Garcia-Ruiz said Algoma graduates will be able to easily join once the partnership with Unity — including the multi-million-dollar Centre of Excellence in Brampton — is up and running.
“The partnership excited me because it allows us as academics to collaborate more using these technologies,” he said. “And also to train students and instructors, so we can actually apply these technologies to local projects.”
Garcia-Ruiz said he sees a lot of potential on the VR and simulation side with local steel manufacturer Algoma Steel.
Not just about games, NORCAT says
It’s not just about games in virtual reality. Self-driving car technology, land use planning, training environments and even Hollywood blockbuster movies have all made use of Unity.
NORCAT Studio, with its team of 18, uses the platform “religiously,” Wisniewski said. It’s been the foundation for its VR projects in mine rescue, workplace safety and advance warning systems.
“Since 2012, we have started producing products with Unity.” Wisniewski said, noting that in 2021 the studio won an award for its work from the Academy of Extended Reality.
“That got us global recognition as being one of the best developers for developing interactive training for education,” he said. “That snowballed into now, where we're almost the only game in Canada when it comes to developing interactive material to the scale that we're doing it and at the quality that we're doing it.”
“When you look at our stuff, it's hard to do,” he said. “And done really well. A lot of people don't even believe we've even done it in Unity.”
The platform has almost limitless potential, Wisniewski added, but designing these VR applications takes a handful of different skill sets, and also a knowledge of the platform itself.
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“We have programmers, we have modellers. We have artists who are dedicated to painting,” Wisniewski said. “We have beta testers, and their job is to do quality control on any of the stuff going in and out before it sees clients.”
“Every one of those aspects touches Unity,” he said.
And those skills are in relatively short supply in Northern Ontario.
Although Algoma said the partnership with Unity — including its Centre of Excellence — is slated to serve its Brampton campus, students in Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins will also have access to the courses and instructors.
And reaching out to more remote communities, like those that dot the Northern Ontario landscape, is an approach that Unity has been focussing on.
Anuja Dharkar, senior director of academic and nonprofit solutions at Unity, said the company’s mission has been to support and enable a diverse set of future creators, and partnering with Algoma was a natural fit for the San Francisco-based company.
“Algoma is really interesting, not only the programs that they teach at their university, but also the work that they do in their community, and in support of initiatives that are focused around social impact,” Dharkar said.
“It really became a great connection for us with Algoma. We looked at how we develop future creators, and how do we ensure that these skills around real time 3D technologies are available for everyone to learn?”
More skilled hands using the technology means more ideas in the marketplace, and more innovation. Once tech becomes more commonplace, it seeps into other fields, like the civil service and education.
That should be a boon for remote communities that don’t have ready access to museums, art galleries or science labs, Dharkar said.
“There’s definitely so much opportunity available,” she said. “As these industries evolve, as learning evolves, there's opportunity for these skilled individuals to work across so many different areas.
“They might build a game, that could be one of the many things they do, but there's a lot of different opportunities available for them.”
To that end, Unity’s partnership with Algoma — Dharkar predicts this to be a long-term relationship — is the start of something bigger.
“It'll be great to see how we continue to expand what they're doing with this first set of students and educators that we continue to grow into.”
You can learn more about Algoma University's offerings in Unity by visiting their website.