Nathan Solomon isn’t interested in creating the next “Angry Birds” or “Candy Crush.” As president of Philadelphia Game Lab (PGL), a nonprofit that serves as a pipeline connecting technically talented students to jobs, Solomon looks beyond entertainment games to the intersection of technology and art.
“We do research and design on technically difficult, creative projects,” he said. “We don’t develop games as much as the underlying technology.”
He asked a team member to demonstrate a current project. A 3-D image of a robot appeared on a computer screen. When the team member stood up and waved his arms, the robot mimicked his movements.
“We’re working with a client on an installation that will take up an entire hallway. As people walk by, their movements will appear alongside them in 3-D,” said Solomon.
Games as art
A Port Richmond resident, Solomon’s only involvement in the world of entertainment games came in 1999 when he was vice president of business development at Electronics Boutique in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
“In six years, we were the largest game retailer in the world until Game Stop bought us,” he said.
The kind of games that excite Solomon these days are ones that address an artistic, theatrical or educational application. The company collaborates with clients and universities to create programs that advance medical and social sciences, as well as working with individual artists and theater groups.
At the suggestion the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, PGL is now collaborating with Tiny Dynamite, a local theater group, on an interactive performance to be held next year in England. Solomon is also working with Marjan Moghaddam, a pioneering, New York-based artist, on a 3-D integrated animation to be exhibited at Main Line Art Center.
“PGL is about to run our first three-month artist residency and we hope, with continued funding, to make this ongoing,” he said.
It’s no coincidence that Solomon chose to move PGL into the same building as Vox Populi on North 11th Street. “This space works for us because all the other tenants are art galleries,” he said.
Keeping it Philly
Solomon sees PGL as a dam against Philly’s “brain drain.” His team comes directly from Penn and Drexel. “Penn has a really strong culture and brilliant professors with whom I collaborate on a wide range of subjects,” said Solomon.
In 2012, Solomon sponsored the first annual Grassroots Game Conference in Philadelphia in which a panel session focused on games as an art form, including speakers from the Smithsonian Institute and the National Endowment of the Arts. The Game Conference ran for two years, but Solomon is no longer hosting it. “We have been too busy, more than I expected, and we want to refine the format before sponsoring another conference,” said Solomon.
Solomon’s efforts to keep talented university grads in Philly resulted in a $340,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community Economic Development. “We matched that figure with client work during 2014, our first year of active development,” he said.
“We’ve employed students from Drexel, UArts, Philadelphia University, Temple, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Swarthmore, Harrisburg University and Carnegie Mellon. But we get more from Penn than all the other universities,” said Solomon.
However, he doesn’t envision Philadelphia becoming another Silicon Valley. “The tech community here isn’t significant outside of our universities,” Solomon says. “Comcast brings very smart people here, but it isn’t clear if they are going to develop their own companies or leave town when they outgrow their positions at Comcast.”
In addition to creating jobs, PGL has generated two for-profit companies owned by several of Solomon’s staff. “Art + Alchemy, Ltd. focuses on immersive experiences (virtual reality, theatrical work, projected interfaces) and Adaptive Engines Corporation does commercial client work in game development and research,” said Solomon.
“We want to provide an option for those students who would like to stay for an extra moment or be usefully engaged while in university,” said Solomon. “I believe that Philadelphia will retain increasing numbers of talented students, but we’re a minuscule element in that ecosystem.”