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How immersive experiences are transforming Plymouth

Wrapping around you through 180 degrees, images beamed at all angles, senses transfixed by a very different type of storytelling – it’s easy to feel your jaw drop when you stand in the centre of the Immersive Dome.

Found in Plymouth’s newly refurbished and re-imagined Market Hall development, you’re unlikely to have ever experienced anything quite like it outside of wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset.

The first of its kind in Europe and one of only a handful of its kind around the world, it’s a quite remarkable space that makes a statement of Plymouth’s digital and creative capabilities.

For this is no pet project or flashy show of digital strength. While the gigantic Immersive Dome’s seamless shared virtual reality experience is truly unique cutting edge both in picture and in sound, it’s part of a wider network of immersive creativity that has become woven around the city.

This network has helped Plymouth lay a marker on immersive. Britain’s Ocean City is making virtual waves and becoming known as a leader in a niche that has come to dominate the future of creative technologies.

Virtual and augmented reality (AR) has long captured public imagination. But until now the practicalities of it have always felt out of reach, an experience where the technology hadn’t quite kept up with our expectations.

That is rapidly changing. Immersive experiences are no longer just for those who can afford perversely expensive headsets. Now, immersive is infiltrating daily life – and in multiple sectors.

VR and AR are not exclusively for home entertainment. Aerospace engineers use it to help wire aircraft. VR is used to help paraplegics regain control of their lower limbs. Theme parks use it to add another layer to roller coasters. KFC has even used it to train employees to fry chicken.

In Plymouth, the infrastructure has been slowly but surely put in place to enable the city to lead on the development of immersive experiences that slowly enter increasing aspects of how we lead our lives.

The Market Hall itself was created in collaboration by owners Real Ideas, Plymouth City Council and the University of Plymouth. The Immersive Dome’s forerunner, the William Day Planetarium (now the Immersive Vision Theatre), was for decades largely hidden from public view.

Today, the University offers a degree course in Virtual Reality Design, where students learn to design immersive media and create content that will influence communication, work and play in the future.

Its Immersive Media Laboratory provides facilities for 3D scanning and motion capture as well as space to experiment with AR and VR technologies. There’s an open invitation to use it to test new games, products, immersive experiences, educational innovations and medical simulations.

Across the road, Plymouth College of Art creates immersive experiences that redefine our expectations of how we learn about the world around us and our perception of what culture is. They work with designers and artists to create experiences that respond to the key issues of our time, communicating in powerful new ways.

This network of organisations is woven far further but demonstrates the level of collaboration now very much energised, attracting key talent to Plymouth and building a powerful reputation for immersive excellence.

In a city surrounded by immersive experiences – the ocean, the moors, the cityscape – these state-of-the-art spaces and collaborations are emerging at its heart that can genuinely change the way we live our lives.

The Market Hall, a historic building nestled in the heart of Devonport, is positioned at the bridge between Plymouth’s emerging tech cluster and industries more closely associated with its heritage as a seafaring, working-class city.

Just a walk away is Oceansgate, a hub of world-class marine organisations who collaborate, research, develop and produce beside Plymouth’s famed waters.

Clusters like Oceansgate, or neighbours Babcock – the international naval, aerospace and security company – are using immersive technology in increasingly innovative ways – in their engineering, in manufacturing, in defense.

The type of immersive content for which creators make use of the Dome is not just being made for audiences in an entertainment environment.

It’s being used over the wall at the dockyard. It’s transforming the health sector, where immersive technologies are used to train students and medical practitioners before exposing them to real-life patients through interactive learning. It’s making waves in the tourism sector, where emotionally impactful virtual experiences are transforming what it means to travel.

Career opportunities for young people in Plymouth that might start with a mind-blowing VR experience are becoming a reality, and not literally a virtual one. Opportunities in immersive can lead to careers that are redefining industries.

Plymouth has the infrastructure, the talent and the partners. It has the skill sets to be a leader in immersive, to be a magnet for attracting people and investment – and to be a UK leader in an industry-revolutionising digital and creative world.

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