Bristol stakes claim as world-leading centre for VR as landmark lab becomes a reality

Bristol’s position as a world-leading development centre for Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) has underlined with the official opening of its VR Lab.

The landmark new facility, in the Leadworks building in Anchor Square, pictured below left, has been operating for several months following a soft launch.

During that time 20 start-ups, supported by global giants including The BBC, Airbus and Microsoft, have become established in its shared workspace, helping create an innovation centre to harness the opportunities and stimulate skills around emerging immersive technologies.

The Bristol VR Lab will now enable small businesses and individual content creators to access and pool their collective knowledge and skills, promoting growth and innovation and working in a university-led research and development community to develop future products and services.

Those behind the pioneering describe it as making the products in Spielberg’s latest fantasy movie Ready Player One a reality. 

Examples include a haptic chair developed by Dr Nick Inoue that sends infrasonic vibrations through the body as the sitter experiences sound and motion in VR – which is helping people with hearing loss experience sound – to a start-up founded by graduate Rachel Godfrey that produces 360-degree 3D virtual tours and is helping people with autism break down perceptual and societal barriers. 

The Bristol VR Lab has been established with £295,000 Local Growth Fund support awarded by the West of England Combined Authority and Local Enterprise Partnership, and follows the news by the government to establish a 5G test-bed in Bristol, which will drive forward new 5G business opportunities for the region and UK.

West of England Metro Mayor Tim Bowles said: “The Bristol VR Lab is a fantastic new facility for businesses and education providers in Bristol and the West of England. It will generate jobs, improve skills and accelerate business growth for creative content and technology companies. It will enable the early adoption of new immersive technologies and this will positively impact multiple sectors in our region.

“The West of England is already firmly established as one of the most significant and innovative digital tech centres in the world. The new VR Lab, along with the many other exciting tech innovations such as our 5G test-bed, will ensure our region continues to lead the way for years to come.” 

Bristol VR Lab founding partners the University of West England (UWE), the University of Bristol, the Watershed digital media and cultural centre and award-winning Bristol-based VR developer Opposable Group have developed a number of aims for the Bristol VR Lab including:

  • To provide a focal point and convene knowledge around VR/AR
  • To accelerate commercial development by providing access to skills, resources and a supportive community network
  • To provide a common ground where academia and industry can co-design innovation, catalysing new insight and research activity
  • To highlight the cluster strength and position Bristol as a centre of excellence of VR/AR at both national and international level

Specifically, the research at Bristol VR Lab will look towards what comes next for content and production for next generation storytelling – the kinds of production teams needed, the specific creative technical skills that production teams will require, and the kinds of stories producers will be able to tell across emerging immersive platforms, from Virtual to Augmented to Mixed Reality.

The facility will build upon Bristol’s existing expertise in film and television, game design and software and hardware development, as the city continues to strengthen its existing creative community around new technologies. 

Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees said: “As one of the leading digital hubs in the country Bristol has a wealth of academics, practitioners and companies working with cutting edge technology such as Virtual Reality. It’s therefore fantastic to see the Leadworks building being used to further research into this area and help develop the industry in Bristol. 

“We are proud of how we are bringing together people from different disciplines and I’m confident that this innovative drive within the city will ensure we continue to attract new investment by major players, for example as an ideal location for Channel 4 outside of London.”

Bristol VR Lab director Ben Trewhella, who is also managing director of Opposable and founder of the VR World Congress event, added: “The market for Virtual and Augmented Reality is forecast to grow exponentially over the next five years. In delivering the vision of the Bristol VR Lab it will position Bristol as a centre of expertise in VR & AR and will create significant commercial opportunities and new businesses – providing competitive advantage in improved understanding, resource and exposure through the work of the Lab.”

Verity McIntosh, managing producer of Watershed’s multi-disciplinary R&D lab the Pervasive Media Studio, said virtual and augmented reality represented a fantastic opportunity to design experiences and connect with audiences in new ways.

“As one of the founding partners, we at Watershed are excited that Bristol VR Lab is bringing together an active community of makers and researchers from a broad spectrum of disciplines to explore and shape the future of this emerging medium.”

University of Bristol Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research Prof Nishan Canagarajah said the university looked forward to collaborating with partners in the region to create a centre of excellence in VR and AR research and enterprise.

This view was echoed by UWE Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise Prof Martin Boddy. “VR and AR applications are going to be massively important in the future across a whole range of sectors from cultural and entertainment experiences through to engineering, design, building and infrastructure, health and many others,” he said. 

“The VR Lab is just the start of what I am sure will be an increasingly important vehicle for driving research and innovation, growing the relevant skills and supporting real world applications with economic impact for the region.”  

The Bristol VR Lab is open for start-ups, researchers and organisations seeking to explore immersive technologies commercially.  For information on future activities, members, company residents or partners, email hello@bristolvrlab.com

Top photo by Jon Craig Photo @JonCraig.co.uk

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