Holograms in Hull: How a new mixed-reality centre is teaching the future of tech

A new mixed-reality centre that aims to boost the number of people with cutting-edge digital skills in the North has been unveiled in Hull.

The Digital Realities Centre will train people to use Microsoft HoloLens, a headset that allows users to place 3D digital models in the room alongside them, so they can use the technology to speed up learning on the job, cut costs and make critical tasks safer.

The centre has been opened next to the University of Hull by VISR, a Microsoft Mixed Reality Partner. The space is home to a one-thousand square-foot simulator that will be used for training and for businesses to work with consultants to improve how they work.

VISR is also working with training organisations and education providers to help apprentices, students and people working in various sectors to use HoloLens.

Mixed reality technology, alongside augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality, has the potential to contribute $1.5 trillion to the global economy by 2030 and enhance more than 400,000 jobs in the UK, according to PwC’s Seeing is Believing report. Discussing the future of this technology being used in industry, Rob Evans, Digital Operations Director at PwC, said the world is at a “tipping point” in uptake of the technology as more use cases emerge and more software is made available.

From left: Jason Lovell, from PWC; Oliver Nicol, from VISR; Leila Martine, from Microsoft; Amy Gadd, from the Yorkshire and Humber Institute of Technology; Lindsay West, from VISR, and Louise Deane, from VISR

From left: Jason Lovell, from PWC; Oliver Nicol, from VISR; Leila Martine, from Microsoft; Amy Gadd, from the Yorkshire and Humber Institute of Technology; Lindsay West, from VISR; and Louise Deane, from VISR

VISR aims to use the Digital Realities Centre to help bridge a digital skills gap in the UK today. Louis Deane, Chief Executive, said: “It’s a new paradigm of computing. Most people are aware of AR in phones but that’s around 10% of the capabilities of HoloLens. Trying to get customers to understand where their benefit is going to come from is a longer journey with new technology like this. One solved by better education.”

The University of Hull has partnered with York College to deliver the Yorkshire and Humber Institute of Technology (IoT) – one of 12 IoTs nationally, which are designed to increase higher level technical skills for employers.

“The Institute of Technology is important because we need people to be going into businesses in the coming years who know about the capabilities of tech,” Deane added.

CATCH, a training organisation also working as part of the IoT in the area, delivers apprenticeships and training to those already in the workforce. It will be working with VISR at the Digital Realities Centre to bring mixed-reality solutions and training to companies in Yorkshire and the Humber area.

Katie Hedges, Head of Membership and Low Carbon Strategy at CATCH, is excited to see industries make use of the technology that VISR is offering. “Where technology makes sense to companies, they will embrace it,” she said.

When discussing bringing change to industries around Hull, she added: “That starts here, being a place where people can see how it works. That has to be a mixture of people, from workers who’ve been in industry for a long time, managers, as well as tutors and students. They just need to see those steps forward, and that’s part of this demonstration centre. We can bring those companies in here to show them what’s possible.”

Speaking at the launch of the space recently, Amy Gadd, head of the local IoT project, said the scheme “provides an alternative way to do a degree”, highlighting that the key difference is “actually how employers sit with that as well, and actually help to shape the curriculum”.

As well as making engineering, construction and other industries safer and more productive, VISR Chief Operating Officer Oliver Nicol said the company is hoping to use mixed-reality technology “to try to change the perception of engineering in general [and make it] more attractive for people”.

“We want to make it more fun. People are used to technology outside of work but we want to try to make this cross over, so they don’t feel like they’re completely disconnected from their own digital capabilities.”

In order to take the technology to industry in a new way, VISR has also launched VERTX. The digital collaboration program transforms users into personalised avatars that can animate facial expressions and hand movements through HoloLens. They can also interact with 3D information, helping users better understand each other and the projects they are working on.

“We’ve never used this technology to deliver value to a business before,” said Deane. “We built a telecom system for sending not just audio data, but face tracking and motion tracking data over the internet, so you could join us from anywhere in the world as yourself.”

Leila Martine, Product Marketing Director for HoloLens at Microsoft UK, added that “by bringing state-of-the-art technology like HoloLens and mixed reality to Hull, VISR’s Digital Realities Centre will help students and apprentices learn faster and more comprehensively. This will make them more skilled and employable, while also giving Hull-based industrial companies a leg-up in their ability to compete on a national and global scale.”