PS5m Virtual Reality Centre opens in Portsmouth

I am in a spacious, colourful room with wooden floors.

PS5m Virtual Reality Centre opens in Portsmouth

I am in a spacious, colourful room with wooden floors. A man is standing beside me and a bird is right at my feet. The man and bird both disappear suddenly. This sounds surreal, but it's not real. It was actually a digital high-tech stage at Portsmouth University.

Businesses and charities can now access tools used by movie and video game makers to create high-quality virtual content at the multimillion-pound centre. It launched on May 4th.

The Centre for Creative and Immersive XR has received funding of more than PS5m, which includes a PS3.6m government grant.

It is stuffed with the most cutting-edge, but expensive, industry tools. This "one-stop shop" invites organisations to use it to create their own material and to explore what's out there to consume it. The university receives training from its students through real-life projects in return.

It boasts a WhiteLight SmartStage that can create 3D sets from 360-degree images to digital worlds. These sets are computer-generated using the latest Unreal graphics engine. This engine was used to create the scenes in Disney's Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian.

Motion capture and photogrammetry are two other areas of studio that allow anyone (or everything) to be scanned in 3D. A complex scan of Southsea Castle on the coast, a 500-year-old fort built for Henry VIII, is one of the most ambitious projects currently underway.

VR is still lacking feeling. However, there are some innovations like the Tesla suit, a type of wetsuit that has sensors that trigger sensations on your skin such as rain or wind. It is available at the centre, but I am not allowed to demo it yet. I don't want to feel like I have been given an electric shock and run the risk that it might malfunction (no thank you).

Pippa Bostock, Business Director, stated to the BBC that one of the advantages of extended reality is sustainability. This allows companies to host and participate in events digitally instead of having to travel.

"I was scheduled to deliver a keynote speech to the University of Michigan. She says that normally I would have flown there, but that she is doing it from the smart stage facility at home means that there has been a significant reduction in carbon emissions.

Extended reality has been proven to be a valuable training tool. It was also tested for new recruits to RAF last year. The Royal Navy has already begun to work with the centre on VR training programs.

Extended reality may seem to industry watchers as if it has been on the brink of becoming the next big thing for many years, but not quite. The first VR headsets were costly and bulky, and required a lot of computing power to process the large graphics.

Pippa Bostock, an enthusiast for the device, points out that it could be applied to other devices that are now commonplace.

She says that technology will continue to evolve and change. Things get more portable and easily accessible when we consider how large mobile phones used to be. This tech will do exactly the same... It will be cheaper and more portable.

Analyst at Gartner Tuong Nguyen says that adoption is also hindered by a lack of content.

"There is still very little content. It's almost like having only three channels when you subscribe to a cable TV provider.

"Even if you are really passionate about these three channels, they only have three hours of programming per day. It's also hard to create. VR market is lacking better content right now."

Alex Counsell, the technical director of the new centre, says that the team has been overwhelmed by the level of interest it has attracted.

He believes that the pandemic has increased demand for all things XR.

He says, "I believe everyone during lockdown realized that barriers can be broken... there were ways to use technology to cover distances you normally couldn’t."

"And a lot technology we have here allows people to have digital presence to be able interact meaningfully in a digital universe. These kinds of environments allow you to connect people from all over the world.

Follow Zoe Kleinman @zsk

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