West Suffolk College leads the trend for extended reality in education

West Suffolk College leads the trend for extended reality in education Educational Architecture

On the 4th of May 2023, a handful of students will take the first public tour around the brand new, state-of-the-art XR (Extended Reality) lab at West Suffolk College designed by WindsorPatania Architects.

The college’s XR Labs marry emerging extended reality technologies with the latest innovative teaching and learning methods. WindsorPatania designed the 700m2 building that houses this ambitious project.

In this article, we cover:

What is Extended Reality (XR)?

Extended reality is an integration of:

  • Augmented reality (AR): augmented reality adds extra visual and auditory information to the real world. Perhaps the best-known example of AR is Google Translate which translates, for example, items on a menu and then superimposes the translation of those items onto the menu itself when viewed through the phone.
  • Virtual reality (VR): VR is a 3D interactive simulation in which the viewer can manipulate elements of a virtual world with connected gloves and other controls. The best-known example of everyday VR technology is probably Facebook’s Meta project VR headsets which enable participation in the metaverse. Other hardware like Google Cardboard achieves the same result.
  • Mixed reality (MR): Mixed reality is a hybrid of VR and AR mixing the real world with virtual objects. For example, in medical training, surgeons using MR see a 3D representation of a patient they’re “operating on”. They can see through the “anatomy, skin and tissue” of their patient and this “beam vision” increases the chances of a successful outcome.

There is growing and widespread adoption of XR technologies across all industries beyond training medical students.

For example, vehicle manufacturers now integrate XR into product development to better understand how a car will look and drive. Ideas and concepts can now be evaluated thoroughly before a decision is made to invest in manufacturing equipment and processes. This greatly reduces R&D expenditure and speeds up the time companies can create an end product.

To take full advantage of this emerging technology, companies need two things – sufficient computing power and employees capable of exploiting the tech in real-world situations.

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XR in education

West Suffolk College understands the importance of investing in extended reality in education, Key to its decision to invest in the technology were the following benefits for its students:

  • Improved learning outcomes – the Royal College of Physicians found that XR tech “can improve learning outcomes when compared to traditional learning methods”. Evidence also strongly suggests that visual learners engage better with XR educational material than with traditional printed media. XR also provide students with the opportunity to engage in on-the-job-type exercises from which they can receive the type of feedback they’d get in the workplace.
  • Better student engagement – research has demonstrated that using XR improves collaboration between students as well as promoting self-directed learning, problem-solving and creative thinking.
  • Bespoke learning opportunities – XR education can be customised to meet the requirements of individual students making it potentially far more inclusive. An AR app and a VR headset also allow for student engagement in courses directly from their home meaning enhanced distance learning opportunities.
  • Safe environment – Students can learn hands-on from a safe space how to handle dangerous machinery and equipment before learning to operate them in the real world. Ideal for medical students undergoing surgery training, as you’d expect.
  • Increased student confidence levels – educators have deployed XR in helping to improve student soft skills like public speaking and listening skills through the use of VR simulation environments.
  • VR field trips – VR experiences can transport students to outer space and to molecular biology levels to deliver field trips the like of which have never been seen in out-of-classroom learning before.

Emerging technologies have long been students’ key weapon in securing distinct career advantages. XR is this trend’s latest iteration.

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How the XR market will grow in the years to come

The XR space is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. Analysts predict that the global augmented and virtual reality market will reach £161.5 billion by 2028. Other countries are already investing massive amounts in providing institutional support to their education systems to try to secure a future advantage.

So, what does the future look like here in Britain as the tech becomes more widely adopted? Here are six potential use cases for XR in the coming years:

  • Retail – bricks-and-mortar and internet retailers can use AR to see how products might look in their homes or when they’re wearing them to reduce the number of returns.
  • Entertainment – XR may finally be the dawn of 3D movies achieving a permanent breakthrough through the provision of a greater immersive experience for viewers. There may be opportunities for game cross-overs as viewers could participate in the storyline. And XR brings the potential to bring some of the greatest singers and bands back to life through holograms.
  • Tourism – similar to the VR field trips used in education, XR offers the opportunity for hotel guests and sightseers to experience a location prior to booking. Museums and tourist spots could offer visitors the chance to wander around at their own pace with a personal digital guide.
  • Property and architecture – residential and commercial developers will be able to let prospective buyers and renters visit their as-yet unbuilt properties. They can bring interior designers into these environments to plan out the look of individual rooms too.
  • Manufacturing – as well as training people on how to use commercial equipment and shortening the R&D process, XR will be able to bring together project teams in different locations to work in the same visually immersive environment.
  • Agriculture – research into the use of XR in agriculture, livestock farming, and aquaculture is advancing quickly in the areas of livestock and crop monitoring and disease/pest detection.

The XR platform at West Suffolk College

The XR Labs at West Suffolk College, located inside Hangar 2 of the STEM building and offices, were built to equip students with the skills they needed to meet the business, scientific and medical requirements of businesses and the public sector in the coming years.

Backed by £2m of government funding, work on the lab was completed in July 2022 with its launch scheduled for the academic year beginning in September 2023. This is a centre of excellence that brings together in one facility the latest in virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies.

We at WindsorPatania had the privilege of designing the facility which was completed in just seven months despite the structure featuring many complex and bespoke elements.

Ryan Windsor, our Development Director and Co-Founder, told Suffolk News, “At WindsorPatania, we’re keen to integrate cutting-edge technology like this into our architectural services. Fascinated by the technology, our team was thrilled to earn the opportunity to help deliver the XR Lab vision.”

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