Jake Pinholster is the founding dean

Jake Pinholster is the founding dean of ASU’s new downtown Mesa facility.

A decade from now, the innovations dreamed up by Arizona State University students in Mesa will probably make Alexa and PlayStation look as arcane as Pong and the video cassette recorder.

It’s hard to imagine what technological advances might come from ASU @ Mesa City Center because some of these inventions either don’t exist or are not widely known today.

But Jake Pinholster, the founding dean at the downtown Mesa facility, sees many potential real-world examples likely eclipsing today’s wonders in such fields as medicine, job training and urban planning.

Pinholster, ASU President Michael Crow and Mesa Mayor John Giles were all in attendance as ASU and Mesa city officials celebrated Friday at a groundbreaking for the unique building, located on the site of a former parking lot at Pepper Place and Centennial, behind City Hall.

“There won’t be controversy at the groundbreaking. We will be celebrating,’’ said Jeff McVay, Mesa’s downtown transformation manager. “It will solidify the project is moving forward.’’

With the ASU groundbreaking and recent progress on two other redevelopment projects, The Grid office and apartment project at the Pomeroy Street Garage and the Residences at Mesa and Main, people will see downtown taking on a different character, he said.

“Somebody pushed over the first domino. That domino thing is starting to fall. It’s great,’’ McVay said.

The ASU building is a huge piece aimed at housing even bigger ideas.

At 65 feet tall with 110,000 square feet, it will be home to three complete movie studios, an “enhanced immersion” art studio, a café and a large walk-through lobby.

Pinholster describes the program inside the building as a one-of-a-kind combination of a film school and a breeding ground for emerging technologies.

“It’s definitely exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. It’s two years before this building opens and I already feel like I’m behind,’’ Pinholster said.

He said there are some examples of similar programs at the University of Southern California, Carnegie Mellon University and New York University – but none combine all the cutting-edge features in the ASU program.

Once the ASU building opens in 2022, it will probably start as an undergraduate film school, but will quickly add a graduate program built on extending the use of technology into various industries.

“It’s a really exciting program with a lot more horsepower than anything out there,’’ he said. “None of these programs have been combined with a high-end film production program.’’

By 2025, ASU anticipates having 1,000 students in Mesa, with the film school alone serving 500 to 700 students, Pinholster said.

“I think the dream is we will eventually see a campus in downtown Mesa,’’ he said.

For now, the Mesa building will operate as a satellite with students using the Metro Light Rail to commute between the Tempe campus and Mesa.

He said the graduate students in Mesa will focus heavily on XR, or extended reality technology. This catch-all phrase includes virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality.

While “gaming and entertainment are definitely a part of that,’’ Pinholster said, students will attempt to take the technology far beyond video games to build sophisticated 3D computer models with a host of potential real-world applications.

The idea is to use the technology to help solve major problems facing the country and the world – such as climate change – rather than just getting a few laughs or providing a break from the real world.

“These groups should be about working together to visualize a new future,’’ Pinholster said.

The models could include interactive videos used for emergency preparedness, training first responders on how to handle mining accidents or large fires.

The models also could include medical imaging and robotics in medicine, improving surgical procedures or medical imaging potentially helping specialists to diagnose and treat patients hundreds of miles away.

The technology also could be used in urban planning to build communities that would create less of a burden on the environment in the future, Pinholster said.

Workforce training is another possibility, with one game, Job Simulator, already exploring this theme. 

Players are exposed to a variety of potential careers, including mechanic, gourmet chef and office worker, according to a review in PCMag.com.

“There are a ton of possibilities,’’ Pinholster said. “The whole goal is to simulate and synthesize these possibilities.’’

It was easy at times to wonder if ASU would ever come to downtown Mesa – especially after Mesa voters rejected Question 1 in 2016, a sales tax increase that would have financed a substantially larger campus and also funded the hiring of more police officers and firefighters.

But even that didn’t stop Mayor John Giles, who believes strongly in the value of education in advancing the city’s appeal and creating jobs.

Giles eventually pushed through a controversial plan to use bonds based upon utility revenues to finance the city’s $63 million contributions with ASU initially agreeing to another $10 million to equip the building, a figure that has since doubled. 

ASU’s $100,000 a year lease also was the source of criticism, with Mesa council members Jeremy Whittaker and Kevin Thompson voting against the plan.

Voters eventually approved another bond issue to build a series of new parks, libraries and police facilities, mostly in east Mesa, along with a plaza connecting the Light Rail to the ASU building. 

City and ASU officials envision Mesa residents and students hanging out at the plaza someday, watching movies produced by the university’s film students on a big screen display attached to the building’s façade.

Although there are separate funding sources involved, the total cost rose to about $103 million by October – including $8 each for the plaza and some innovation labs located in the city’s vacant IT building.

Giles and other Mesa officials consider this a worthwhile investment in enlivening downtown and creating jobs, with McVay and Pinholster playing pivotal roles in making it happen.

Pinholster’s history in Mesa includes serving on the Mesa Arts Center Foundation’s board of directors since 2015. 

He has served as ASU’s associate dean for enterprise design and operations in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. 

His career has focused on projection and media design and technology for performance, according to his ASU biography.

But Pinholster has a relaxed, easygoing demeanor, despite his accomplishments, qualities he hopes will help him build relationships in Mesa.

“We are hoping to avoid the ivory tower approach and for the community to be engaged in the process,’’ Pinholster said.

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