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Making extended reality real: Building the Centre for Creative and Immersive XR

Pippa Bostock, business and development project manager at University of Portsmouth, on the £5.2m CCIXR

Anyone who has ever sat in a classroom, wondering when they will ever need to use algebra when they are older, will understand the importance of making education relevant and applicable to real-life. Adopting an industry-led approach, and enabling our students to work on real-world challenges is a vital part of helping them to not only see how their learning is useful – but to facilitating their future careers and development.

Technology evolves at a particularly fast-rate, and in order to enable our students development in these emerging areas we need to ensure that they have access to state-of-the-art facilities. In October 2021 the University of Portsmouth will open the ground-breaking Centre for Creative and Immersive XR (CCIXR), a £5.2 million pound development bringing world-leading XR facilities to the South-Coast. CCIXR brings the transformative benefits of XR to a broad spectrum of sectors, and builds upon 15 years of cutting-edge research and innovation expertise. The magic, however, comes in bringing these technologies together and using them in new and unique ways to solve real-world challenges, something the team behind CCIXR have been doing for many years.

CCIXR features cutting-edge technology from 12 different areas, including motion capture, volumetric capture, photogrammetry, virtual production, and simulation technologies. The co-location of all these facilities under one roof, as an interconnected Centre, enables us to capture, manipulate and utilise a wide range of data across the whole immersive pipeline, from the capture of the data at the start of the project all the way through to completion and distribution. The educational benefits of co-locating these technologies are immense, as students will be able to understand and see first-hand the whole pipeline, giving them a better multidisciplinary understanding of how projects come together as a whole.

The University of Portsmouth’s investment, in partnership with Solent Local Enterprise Partnership and HM Government, will enable us to meet the needs of not only our students, but also those of industry. These significant benefits will be achieved through addressing the  skills shortage, providing access to facilities and training, working in partnership and also through demonstrating the transformative powers of extended reality (XR) technologies. Extended reality, of course, is a relatively new term for a broad range of creative technologies, including virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality.

Business needs
The educational benefits of having access to world-leading equipment and facilities are immense and immediate – allowing our students to have hands-on experience with the tools of their future trade. Our students are not the only intended beneficiary, CCIXR has been designed to meet the needs of businesses and practitioners across
the Southcoast and beyond.

Currently, many of these technologies – such as motion capture – are available only to a select few who are already aware of the benefits, and can afford the substantial initial outlay needed in order to set up a facility. CCIXR aims to lower the barrier to entry, enabling artists, businesses and practitioners to access these facilities, and crucially to gain the skills they need in order to maximise the benefits these technologies bring.

Mainstream reality

XR technologies of all kinds are becoming more mainstream. Virtual production has seen a huge boom in popularity since Disney’s The Mandalorian openly shared extensive use of this technology. Covid-19 and the shift to remote working has further driven interest levels in the options offered by XR, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. The success of the VR headset Oculus Quest (1 and 2) is another clear step on the journey to XR adoption, with over 1 million headsets sold so far, and an estimated $150 million dollars generated in sales revenue over an 18 month period.

Despite this growing popularity, much of the world-leading XR content is currently only available to a minority, and many have not yet had the opportunity to experience the power and wonder XR can deliver. XR has a wide multitude of use cases, ranging from defence through to culture. In order for businesses to understand what XR means for them, and how it can help, they need to see it, touch it and interact with it themselves. That is why CCIXR has been developed, to demonstrate that potential.

CCIXR will work across all sectors, helping them to understand what XR means for them. The team is ideally-placed to do so, and over the last few years we have worked on a wide range of industry collaborations – from IBM through to the NHS. Each of those innovative and unique projects share one common goal: to push the barriers of possibility, through the creative use of technology in their sector. Bringing creativity and innovation together
with technology in this way is a core foundation of CCIXR, allowing real-world problem-solving to shine.

There is considerable growth in VR for training applications, and recent examples within the CCIXR team include a Royal Navy training simulation which trains the user to drive a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB), a chemotherapy meditation simulation and a large-scale immersive theatre project in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company and other arts and cultural organisations. The new facilities, in partnership with world-leading companies such as White Light and Vicon will enable us to bring those benefits to even more companies, helping to make the future real today.

Unicorn farm

The skills that CCIXR graduates will have are hugely in demand. StoryFutures XR (2019) report showed that graduates with these immersive XR skills – with the ability to use real-time games engines, and apply these in real-time to other sectors – are so rare and almost mythical that the report called them unicorns. In effect, CCIXR will be a unicorn farm, as we aim to directly address that skills shortage – working hand-in-hand with industry to do so.

There is wide evidence of the economic impact of the Creative Industries; however there is also a clearly evidenced skill shortage – which if unchecked will limit the ongoing growth of this key sector. CCIXR is vital, not only as a first-class education tool, but in enabling businesses. Portsmouth was recently recognised as the number one entrepreneurial city in the UK, making it a great place to start a business in the UK. This wider eco-system will hugely benefit from the facilities and training opportunities that CCIXR will provide.

The industry-led approach, utilised by the University of Portsmouth, is crucial to graduates successfully achieving high-value industry opportunities upon graduation. Without a doubt, CCIXR will have a hugely significant impact on our students’ education over the coming years. The truly incredible thing is going to be watching what they do with it.