Dr. David Metcalf sees the future not just in the cutting-edge technology created by the Institute for Simulation & Training but also in the brilliant minds of his students.

David Metcalf UCF
As Director of the Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Lab (METIL) at University of Central Florida, Dr. David Metcalf has worked on projects that range from AR gaming to medical simulation.

David Metcalf, Ph.D. has a reputation as an early adopter and a supporter of entrepreneurial innovation. So when he planned for a father-son adventure, Metcalf trained his sights on answering the call from Elon Musk to set a new world record. The visionary co-founder and  CEO of Tesla, Inc., had issued a challenge to the close-knit Tesla owners community: be the first to drive more than 400 miles on a single charge in the Model S, and win a prize.   

With the proper conditions and planning, Metcalf knew it could be done. Armed with technical advice from his NASA engineer friends and plenty of research, he and his then 12 year-old son, Adam, set out to meet the challenge. Over a period of 17 hours, the duo travel 423 miles, smashing expectations. and on an early morning in November 2012, they succeeded in breaking the record.

Today, Metcalf continues to reach for the stars in Orlando, FL as Director of the Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Lab (METIL) at University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Institute for Simulation and Training. It’s the perfect post for a man who seems to have a sixth sense for getting in on the ground floor of emerging technology. And he believes wholeheartedly in giving the students with whom he works the same advantages that he’s had.

From Teaching to Space and Back to Teaching

That propensity for forward thinking has taken Dr. Metcalf on an interesting professional journey. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas, where he developed an early interest in how computers might shape art, at a time before computer-generated graphics and art weren’t as commonplace as today. That curiosity led him to a position in Upstate New York, where he taught professional art directors in the advertising world to use computer graphics to enhance their designs.

Along the way, Metcalf met and married a Florida girl, and the two decided to trade in cold New York winters for new horizons in the Sunshine State. Kennedy Space Center was forming a multimedia lab at the time, and offered him a position. It was the perfect opportunity to take what he had learned on the job in New York and apply it, and to benefit from use of the internet, a tool available at NASA that still wasn’t widely in use.

The move enabled him to obtain his masters and doctorate degrees, while continuing to work in a field he loved. He also began to see how mission-aligned work could benefit both individuals and their communities in tangible economic ways. While he wasn’t necessarily “business minded,” as he puts it, in those days, the company was able to spinoff his team to create an online training company for engineers, which led to the creation of 50 jobs in the area.

While Metcalf found the work to be enriching, required travel took him out of the country and away from his family frequently. A colleague suggested that he might find the perfect balance in an academia role. And with that idea, METIL was born.

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METIL lab student using a VR headset for virtual medical training.

Tomorrow’s Technology, Today

METIL works at UCF to inspire innovation by exploring the potential of emerging technology, including simulation, augmented reality, gaming and more, to solve some of the globe’s most complex problems.

“It’s exciting, because we have the opportunity to have some of the best people in the world in their disciplines work with our faculty and our students, and really try to come up with new solutions that are going to help society in some meaningful way,” explains Dr. Metcalf. “Whether that’s AI, or blockchain, or self-driving cars.”

Indeed, METIL looks to harness the power of technology across the disciplines of psychology, computer programming and instructional design, “to do well by doing good”—by taking knowledge obtained in the lab and putting it to good use in tangible ways for the benefit of the community. He sees this as the real advantage for the students that he’s working with. “How do you have a public entity that has assets that they can then license and instantly have a portfolio of things they can take out to the marketplace, either for building a business, or helping society with some non-profit venture. Those are the things that I get excited about with our students,” he shares.

One of Dr. Metcalf’s favorite aspects of the lab’s work is the ability to expose students to emerging technology on the ground floor, just as he was early in his career. “I was blessed to get to work for NASA right at the time that the internet was not commercially available,” he explains. “It gave me a two- or three-year head start in internet technology. People were still saying, ‘I don’t know if that’ll take off for work yet.’ The same way they might say something about technology we have in our labs right now.”

Opportunities to explore abound. According to Dr. Metcalf, five billion dollars flows through Central Florida Research Park, adjacent to UCF, in the areas of simulation. “This is the epicenter, for the whole world, in simulation and training. And that’s pretty exciting,” he explains.

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Augmented Reality application brings military jet fighters to life.

The Best of Both Worlds: High Quality of Life Meets Endless Opportunity

Beyond the fact that the area is a leader in simulation and model innovation, the quality of life in Orlando makes it a desirable place to settle, giving it an edge over other leading tech hot spots. For Metcalf and his family, the Central Florida area is an especially good fit, given that both his and his wife’s parents live here. And while they live in Brevard County, Metcalf finds the commute to UCF’s campus in East Orlando to be a relatively easy one, a fact that he credits to growing up in the sprawl of the Houston, Texas, area.

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The family especially loves to spend time outdoors on the water, surfing and wakeboarding, and they enjoy camping as well. “You can do those things year round. You definitely can’t say that about everywhere.

“And, we frequently go to theme parks,” Metcalf continues. He and his wife actually met at Disney when both worked at the resort during summer breaks in college. “Once we had kids, that became the natural thing to do. So we spend a lot of time there. We’ve taken full advantage of that, probably over a thousand trips to the different theme parks over the years.”

In addition, UCF and other local colleges offer great education and professional opportunities for students upon graduation, or for working professionals to pursue advanced degrees in their fields. Metcalf’s older son is currently studying at UCF himself.

The Next Big Thing

What’s next for the team at METIL? For Dr. Metcalf, it’s about harnessing the power of collaboration and emerging technology to create the city of the future right here in Orlando.

“There’s just a whole spirit of opportunity and of people helping each other, too. Those are the types of things that are really good for a community to have. They create a solid base for other people to build on.”

He sees the mission of METIL as taking homegrown ideas out of Orlando to the rest of the world, but he also hopes to bring other ideas into the community, and to facilitate an incubator of sorts, where ideas can go “from lab to launch.”

“We’ve been blessed to have people from all across the world come to the lab, whether it’s academic researchers from Europe who come over and work with us for a year, or to be able to have some of the top companies in the world, like Google, Johnson & Johnson and Lowe’s and many others, come and work with us here in the laboratory. That gives our students a great experience. It also gives us a chance to take some very strong know-how and bring it back to our local community too,” he explains.

Inspiring students to think big and to see beyond perceived limitations is a big part of the lab’s success. “Everyday, I try to come in and inspire innovation, whether it’s in our young people or in our projects,” Metcalf explains. And the students inspire him as well. He calls it reverse mentoring. The flat culture that he’s created in the lab means that students work right alongside professors, generals, surgeons and others, all with the common mission to solve problems with emerging technology.

For Metcalf, it’s personal. “I was a lot like the students here. I was the first generation to attend college. When I see some of our students who are so bright and eager, and who are just looking for a chance to do something, and we give them exposure to some of the latest technology… that little bit of inspiration and opportunity can take people really far. And that’s exciting to see.”