Virtual reality (VR) is becoming the new normal at the University of Leeds, as staff and students working in engineering, arts, humanities, the social sciences and health research embrace the technology.

The University has today (Thursday 13th June) launched a new centre designed to harness the power of immersive technologies, to upskill the next generation and push the boundaries of possibilities in research and education.

Working alongside public and private sector partners, the new Centre for Immersive Technologies aims to create positive changes across society.

Over 80 researchers from a range of University subjects will focus on five priority areas – health, transport, education, productivity and culture.

The centre is being coordinated through six academic leads and has a poet and two artists ‘in residence’.

Mr Coleman Fung, VR entrepreneur and founder of the Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership at the University of California, Berkeley, is giving a keynote speech at the launch today.

Mr Fung said:

“Immersive technologies have enormous potential beyond gaming. They will revolutionise the ways we engage with one another and the world around us. How we learn and work, how we experience arts and sports events, how we take care of each other, how we inspire and motivate kids and, most important of all, how we improve lives.

To realise all these possibilities, we need co-investments and collaborations from academia, governments, and industry. Therefore, it’s tremendous that the University of Leeds is taking the lead on this pioneering effort with the research Centre.”

Professor Mark Mon-Williams, from the University of Leeds’ School of Psychology is Director of the new Centre for Immersive Technologies. He said:

“Immersive technologies are a game-changer that will impact on every area of our lives, transforming how we live, work and play.

This new centre will help ensure that the next technological revolution is harnessed for the benefit of society. By working with a wide range of partners, from technology companies and hospitals to museums, we are ensuring that the work carried out by researchers in Leeds is making a real difference to the world.”

World-class facilities

Virtuocity will form a key facility for the Centre for Immersive Technologies. Already home to the University’s driving and truck simulators, Virtuocity uses immersive VR to conduct research that can improve the design of urban transport and city systems.

Unveiled today as part of the Centre launch is Virtuocity’s new Highly Immersive Kinematic Experimental Research (HIKER) lab – the largest 4K resolution pedestrian simulator in the world.

The HIKER lab allows participants to interact with virtual urban environments and vehicles without the need to wear any VR equipment. Virtuocity’s three simulation laboratories – driving, truck and pedestrian – will be connected to create a single “multi-player” environment enabling researchers to address complex questions including how driverless vehicles will interact with their passengers and with pedestrians. 

Professor Richard Romano, Chair in Driving Simulation and academic lead for Virtuocity at the University, said:

“Immersive technologies are already at the heart of a range of University research. As part of the new centre, Virtuocity provides the technology and expertise to explore and test real-world scenarios using human-centred design methods to inform the future of urban mobility, transport and city planning.”

Breadth of research

In addition to the future of transport, highlights of the Centre include:

  • Improving healthcare delivery through autonomous robots, training surgeons in developing countries using VR and using robotics to help speed up rehabilitation following accidents and stroke;
  • Boosting the education of schoolchildren through VR learning experiences, and training the next generation of healthcare professionals through immersive education tools;
  • Collaborating with schools, museums and artists to give people access to cultural resources which are beyond public reach, including the Virtual Holocaust Memoryscapes project, forging new connections between the past and the present;
  • Encouraging environmentally-friendly lifestyles through immersive technology, letting decision makers virtually experience the outcomes of difficult choices, and helping companies produce virtual prototypes to accelerate product testing and design.

The Centre for Immersive Technologies will be based within the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics at the University of Leeds. It will help connect world-leading researchers with partners from the public and private sectors to accelerate innovation and place people at the heart of the new immersive technology revolution.

In addition to the academics who have joined the Centre, two artists in residence have been appointed, Christophe DeBezenac and Dave Lynch, and a poet, Dr Kate Fox, who recently completed her PhD at the University. Their goal is to spark conversations between different practices, prompting researchers to ask critical questions and take fresh approaches, while the artists are inspired to create exciting new pieces of work.

The scope of the new Centre includes the application of a variety of immersive technologies, including virtual, augmented and mixed reality.