Reese innovates

As professional media organizations are challenged to innovate constantly to keep up with the digital world, UNC Hussman is engaged with the future of education and the journalism, public relations and advertising industries through groundbreaking research and projects.

The former Reese News Lab, established in 2009 with a gift from the estate of alumnus Reese Felts, will now become the Reese Innovation Lab, with a revamped focus on improving storytelling and education through technological innovation.

In the organization’s collaborative new workspace on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill, its expert team of faculty and students will study audience engagement and immersive storytelling through artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality. The Lab is led by Chief Innovation Officer Steven King, a UNC Hussman associate professor, former director of video at The Washington Post and expert in interactive storytelling, human-centered design and development for mobile apps and virtual reality.

“The evolution of the Reese Innovation Lab demonstrates the commitment of our faculty and our students to experiment and learn and invent the future of the media,” said Susan King, dean of UNC Hussman. “The immersive experiences our students are getting with emerging technologies, professional partnerships and community initiatives are invaluable to their careers, just as they are creating important models for industry.”

Watch the Reese Innovation Lab's launch video:

The Lab’s new direction, which has attracted new funding and interest from major partners, aims to give Hussman students on-the-ground experience with the technologies that will shape their futures. Its projects range from Adventure Squad, an augmented reality app that engages pediatric hospital patients in physical activity, to RoboJ, a “robot journalist” that captures smooth 360-degree video, to Gear Up VR, a virtual reality app that aims to give rural, first-generation North Carolina college students a chance to virtually explore other campuses where they may want to pursue further education. Aware of the pitfalls for media professionals in the digital world, the Reese Innovation Lab team is driven to create technology that enhances lives through innovative storytelling.

“Our role is the help media companies leverage these new technologies and to help them better engage with their audiences,” said Steven King. “In the Lab, our students learn through hands-on experience how to foresee emerging trends and how to use their strong storytelling skills with those emerging technologies.”

The Lab has already partnered with organizations including Quartz, Time, the University of North Carolina system and UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and has additional professional partnerships on the horizon. Those professional connections have drawn Hussman students to get involved. Gabri Mannino ’20, who studies advertising at Hussman, was looking for an internship that would build her strategy and research skills. She found the perfect role as the Lab’s market researcher. “A place like this allows students to gain real world experience,” Mannino said, adding that they can be free to “make mistakes that we can learn from along the way in a collaborative, idea-fostering environment.”

Graduate student and Roy H. Park fellow Michael Gawlik, who works in the Lab as a designer and as King’s graduate assistant, echoed Mannino’s appreciation. “When I arrived at UNC last semester, I had almost no experience with anything other than traditional graphic design,” Gawlik said. “Since then, I've had the opportunity to work on user interface design, motion graphics and other forms of interactive media. It's been great to take the skills I'm learning in class and put them to work.” Gawlik also praised the Lab’s new home on Franklin Street, which he called open, flexible, and collegial. “Projects in the Lab are inherently collaborative. They require diverse skills and knowledge and can only be completed through teamwork."