Having recently started as the Inward Investment Manager at Invest North East England, I, like a lot of people in the UK, and across the world, have spent the last few months working from home. (In fact, I’ve not actually been to my new workplace yet!) Physical meetings have been replaced with zoom calls, conferences have moved to webinars, and most of our contact with colleagues has been through online communications platforms like Microsoft Teams and Slack.
Having worked in the digital and innovation sector for many years now, I feel we often take for granted the role technology plays in our day-to-day lives. I think it’s fair to say though, that without it, our ability to do our jobs would have been severely inhibited during lockdown.
One of the major innovations of recent years and something which I am very excited about is immersive technology - the blurring of the physical and virtual world – and it’s an emerging sector of industry North East England is leading in. It’s an area I’m passionate about, have supported through my previous roles and will continue to promote and champion on behalf of Invest North East England.
PROTO, Europe’s first dedicated centre for emerging technology, opened its doors in Gateshead in 2018 and provides access to specialist kit to create digital content. It is home to the Immersive Lab, which is run by Digital Catapult North East Tees Valley. Soon it will form part of the National Innovation Centre for Immersive Technology, which will create commercial workspace, research and development lab space, as well as an immersive visitor attraction. The Immersive Incubation Hub opening early 2021 will support early stage businesses in the immersive and emerging technology sectors to scale.
Those businesses will join many others already based in our region, who are working on innovative applications of immersive tech across numerous industries such as manufacturing, education, retail and others. They include Neutron VR, Luminous Group, Dimension, Coatsink, Annimersion, and Vector76.
Add to that an unrivalled business network - we have more digital dedicated networks in the North East than other areas of the UK - and it’s no wonder North East England is seen as one of the leading destinations for immersive technology in the world.
So why is there so much interest in immersive technology? What benefits will it have for businesses, particularly during the recovery phases of the coronavirus pandemic?
In the manufacturing sector, immersive technology is already having a significant impact. Technology is transforming how we do business and it’s led to what many are calling the fourth industrial revolution, or industry 4.0, which is seeing manufacturing join with digital technology to disrupt traditional manufacturing and industrial practices. In response to COVID-19, many businesses are using virtual reality to run simulations to ensure staff can social distance effectively. Immersive tech is also being used for staff training and inductions as employees returning to the workplace and adapt to a new way of working.
Outside of using the technology to adapt to our ‘new normal’, companies like Zerolight have been using immersive technology, and particularly virtual reality, for a long time to build
simulations for the automotive industry. Nissan in Sunderland has also introduced new digital technologies into its manufacturing process.
Other sectors of industry are seeing the benefits of investing in new immersive technology too. Digital visualisation company, Animmersion UK, is working with Newcastle-based Onyx Health Ltd to develop immersive technology for the healthcare sector. The two companies are working to create custom virtual meeting spaces, including exhibitions stands and virtual showrooms.
In the education sector, many institutions are moving to online learning as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Some are looking at how virtual reality and augmented reality can become part of the teaching experience. Students studying manufacturing or engineering, for example, could really benefit from the technology, by being able to collaborate in virtual reality and modify 3D models.
Across the country, schools, colleges and universities are also looking at how they can make online lessons more engaging for students; introducing innovative technology will likely be the solution.
It’s important to remember that embracing immersive technology shouldn’t only be in response to our current situation. Every sector of industry should be thinking about how it can add value to what they do. Whether it’s virtual meetings or distance learning, online training or digital twinning; the technology exists that can make businesses more efficient, more productive and more inclusive.
With over 28,000 people working in the digital and IT sector in North East England, the region has created one of the leading creative clusters for immersive technology in the country. And with a pipeline of talent coming from the region’s universities, there’s no shortage of skilled developers ready to drive the technology forward and help companies innovate and future proof their business.
By Rachel Burdis, Inward Investment Manager at Invest North East England
To find out more about the immersive technology sector in North East England and opportunities around inward investment