Taking lessons to the next stage with XR

The next few years will see a growing opportunity for XR in higher education. Paul Milligan speaks to those involved in the design of these spaces to discuss if their potential can be maximised.

Teaching is the art of passing on knowledge of the world and everything in it to the next generation. While the central premise of teaching may never change, what has evolved are the tools teachers use to pass on information to students. The generation now hitting universities is the first one to have grown up never knowing a world without the internet.

This familiarity with a variety of different electronic tools at their disposal means they have far greater expectations of the technology they will have regular access to in colleges and universities than previous generations. When we looked at XR studios and virtual production at the start of the year (see January 2023 issue) it was clear there was potential for the technology to be installed inside many corporate organisations. But with a generation of tech-savvy kids now coming into university, could XR studios have a bright future in higher education too? We asked those working in HE, and those on the supply end, from integrators to manufacturers, to find out.
At this moment in time when we talk about XR in HE, are we talking about merely potential or are rooms being installed? There are some already up and running it seems, but many more are looking at the technology with a view to investing.

Integrator White Light has been at forefront of XR for the last few years, so far it has installed two in the UK, and is in the process of installing another two at the moment. “In the last six to eight weeks we’ve won another two for next year. The market is there. And it's beginning to pick up pace,” says Adam Dennis, XR, VP and Smart Stage sales manager, White Light. It’s definitely one to watch adds Brandon Brunhammer, director, simulation and immersive learning from integrator AVI-SPL. “As far as the builds go at the moment it is moderate, but the interest in it is substantial.” He adds that more universities are starting to ask serious questions about XR, “They want to understand use cases and potential ROI. There is a drive to understand what is involved, the costs and how they can be used, what they are noticing is they can be used for everything.”

The early adopters that have invested so far, like the UK’s University of Sunderland who has installed a 10m x 3.5m LED Virtual Production Stage, have seen immediate results. “Our intake for this September is up from last year and some of that I think has been driven by the new equipment we installed. We’ve had lots of open days and school/college visits where prospective students have had the opportunity to both see and use the new gear, and feedback has been incredibly positive,” says Craig Moore, senior TV and virtual production studio technician, University of Sunderland. Demand is only going to grow from this point says Brunhammer, “The digital era of streaming, digital production, and immersive elements have put XR top of the list. Tech isn’t going anywhere but due to the rapid advancements it is hard to stay as current as possible. XR futureproofs and gives the expansion needed for universities to stay relevant.”

The simpler the setup, the more demand there will be because it requires less people to be involved, ie graphic designers to create content says Miguel Churruca, marketing and communications director from 3D graphics provider Brainstorm. “But if it’s just a display method, there will be big demand for that, and I'm sure that many universities are looking into that because it really enhances the way the lesson is looked at.”

If a decision is made to invest in an XR studio, are they typically going in existing teaching rooms or are they only being built when it’s a new build project? The temptation is to think it’s only in new builds but the answer is in both old and new. The understanding that it doesn't only need to be a new build project is starting to grow says Dennis. “A misconception exists that you have to have a purpose built space, a hanger size room with high ceilings and loads of room and it's really not the case. Our own studio almost touches the sidewalls and we've done a couple of installations recently where the ceiling is probably less than a foot from the top of my head.” The decision on a location is often made out of necessity, like in the case of the University of Sunderland. “Our XR stage was installed in our existing TV studio,” explains Moore. “We did originally plan to put it in our Chroma studio, but it would have been very restricted in size. We also wanted to have as much distance between the camera and volume, so the bigger TV studio was really our only option.”

Money is never far away from the conversation when it comes to HE. Whilst universities can often have substantial budgets for individual projects, each euro spent has to be carefully accounted for. Are universities surprised or shocked at how much (or how little) they can get for their money when it comes to XR? With any technology there is always a premium to be paid by the early adopters, but costs will come down as the technology matures, and that seems to be the case with XR right now. “There is always a conversation of how much it costs, some universities come prepared for the sticker price, and some are taken aback by the fact that it could be that much to build one,” says Brunhammer. “Universities certainly have an understanding that this is premium technology, I think the massive surprise for a lot of the universities we're talking to is that the difference between a green screen delivery and an LED volume delivery is not that different anymore.

When we started doing this eight years ago the difference was huge, and it was only for premium broadcasters. I think a lot of universities have been really pleasantly surprised that XR is so achievable,” says Dennis. When buying emerging cutting-edge technology nobody expects it to be cheap explains Moore. “We pay out a lot of money every year for support and licences. I know that every year I need to meet with managers to justify this ongoing cost, with them looking to make savings where possible, but I have found it to be worth every penny so far.”

If the budget can’t quite stretch to a full floor and/or ceiling virtual production setup, can compromises be made within XR studios without substantially affecting the quality? You can compromise admits Keiran Phillips, sales and marketing manager for integrator CJP Broadcast Solutions, but there will always be an area within the workflow that has to make up for that compromise he warns. “There's a balance to be struck as there's a lot of key components to this. If you're spending less money on LED volume, then you're going to lock yourself into disguise for the media server and the platforms around that which is enormously more expensive commensurately.”

When the University of Sunderland was looking at LED panels, it looked at a wide range of products with regards to cost and pixel pitch. “There was a discussion to only use the LED volume for broadcast and not VP. This would have allowed us to buy cheaper panels to be used simply as a backdrop. In the end it was decided that we should look as far to the future as possible, knowing we wouldn’t get this level of investment again for a few years, and buy the best equipment we could that would best futureproof the studios. This did mean there were somethings we had to do without, a ceiling for the XR Stage being the main one,” admits Moore. Your choice of LED (and its subsequent cost) is often dictated by the size and shape of the room. “If you have a small classroom, you need to have a small pixel pitch for the quality of the image to be good. If you have a larger classroom, one with tiered seating for example, you also need to take care of the angle of view. In those larger classrooms, as people are farther away you can then play with pixel pitch and achieve a compromise there,” says Churruca.

To save costs when building an XR studio, can universities repurpose kit they already have, rather than buying everything new? “Existing technology infrastructure can be reused or repurposed ie film production courses will have good access to top range film cameras, or if they've got a level of lighting already existing within that studio,” explains Phillips. A broadcast level camera isn’t necessarily a must have explains Dennis, “It has to be reasonably high spec but you can have a PTZ camera and a lot of universities have invested in very high quality PTZ cameras for their existing classroom capture needs.” One key element to consider when it comes to cameras for XR is the lenses says Phillips, “You have to ensure they are calibrated, especially with the latest tracking systems available. Certain tracking systems require certain lens files, you really need to ensure that is available before advising and saying this is okay to be repurposed.” CJP, like all good integrators should do, will go through exactly what kit can be repurposed and which can’t with their university clients pre-build.

We have established that not all XR projects are going into shiny new buildings, and as anyone who has ever worked in HE will know, architecture can quite often provide unique challenges to installing technology. What are the common issues found when installing XR studios in HE? “Retrofitting existing spaces is the main challenge, having HVAC in place or not enough height for the lighting or ceiling panels,” says Phillips. Fitting heavy LED walls in listed building is a huge challenge says Dennis, “Mounting is the biggest problem, we often have issues in listed buildings or older spaces where you can't put a ground mount, or you can't mount it on the wall, or you can't hang it because you can't bolt into the ceiling. You can't have a free standing LED wall, so often have to be creative in how we deliver a solution.” Working in HE can also involve limited access to the site based around the academic calendar.

If a university has invested in an XR space, what subjects are they using it for? Does it fit everything or are there subjects like engineering or design where it’s a more natural fit? CJP has installed LED studios specifically for film production and TV production says Phillips, but applications seem almost limitless he adds, “They can also be used for live event spaces, music production, eSports, with the increase of that within education courses now, fashion and live drama production. They can be extended for training video environments, with use of AR and data driven graphics for healthcare, sports and analytics, industrial design.” Moore says The University of Sunderland views their XR stage as a university resource rather than just for the students on the media and film courses. “We want as many people as possible, from a wide range of disciplines, to be able to use this facility.”

One aspect of HE you wouldn’t naturally associate with cutting-edge tech is business schools, but several of the suppliers we spoke to said there had been
lots of interest so far. This from Brainstorm’s Churruca was typical, and outlines the reasons why; “We’ve seen interest from expensive programmes such as MBAs, they not only need to provide good content but also differentiation against their competition. The way they create the classes and the way they present is key for them, so any new additions, like an LED wall, makes it appealing for new students to come in.”

Finally, we come to the issue of support, who is it that is looking after these spaces once they have been installed, is it the AV team or do they have production specialists or do those skills all just fall under one department in HE usually? Typically, it’s a mix of a small team of AV support staff, with support given by the system integrator. “At the moment it’s just me who is responsible for both the VP and TV studios, although we have recently advertised a new technical post to help out,” says Moore. That quote from Craig Moore highlights a bigger issue here, getting staff for such specialist technology is going to be a slow and difficult process. “This is the number one struggle that we have with every single project we've done,” says Dennis. “We support our customers, at the end of any project we’ve delivered they go through a week's worth of training sessions, and there's refresher training throughout the first year. There is a dearth of knowledge in the market, every single customer, whether it be broadcast, corporate, or education, has asked us to write a job spec to recruit somebody, whether it be internal or external, to manage these spaces. In most scenarios, it's very difficult to find those people.”

There are undoubtedly challenges around installing XR and VP spaces in HE right now. The costs are currently high as a lot of the tech is still so new, you need a decent amount of space (although maybe not as much as you think you need) to install the kit, and you need specialist people to run the spaces day-to-day. That being said, universities have shown themselves as willing to invest in cutting-edge technology time and time again, and the fact that XR/VP has so many applications across so many different disciplines within a university makes it very appealing says Churruca. “As long as you are able to provide a means to have good content that will engage your audience, you will benefit from this technology.” The outlook is pretty strong says Phillips, because all sides of the equation can see this as a technology with many benefits, “I think manufacturers, like integrators, recognise the need for universities to have this technology available. We’ll work together to ensure that we make it as accessible to the universities and to colleges as possible.

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