Teesside VR centre forges business links

February 14, 1997

A Pounds 2.3 million virtual reality centre serving students and local industries will be housed in the latest showpiece building to rise on the formerly down-at-heel campus of the University of Teesside.

Next Tuesday, the university's industrial partners and other visitors will view the future campus - in virtual reality. They will also see other VR projects such as a reconstruction of the ancient city of Miletus in Asia Minor.

Meanwhile in the real Middlesbrough, existing science and engineering labs are being torn down to make way for the new Teesside Innovation Centre, which will house the VR centre together with rebuilt science and engineering labs and other industry-oriented units. Construction of the Pounds 10 million centre will begin in April, supported by Pounds 4.8 million from the European Regional Challenge competition.

Next week"s visitors will use an interim VR facility which has been set up in the university's institute of design - which offered one of the first VR masters degree courses in the country. There are three projectors, a curved, 12-foot screen, and a bank of Silicon Graphics computers. As with early stereo sound equipment, he or she who grabs the most central seat gets the most mind-blowing experience. Elsewhere on the campus, the new Learning Resource Centre was topped out two weeks ago. The four-storey building is now being equipped to open in time for the autumn term. There will be computers at 400 of its 1,300 study spaces.

Oldest of the "new" buildings is the two-year-old Open Learning Centre, which will continue to provide computer labs for scheduled classroom sessions after the open-access Learning Resource Centre opens for private study.

Sony Broadcast and Professional UK is putting videoconferencing into the two new buildings and the university's television studio. Sony will also be re-equipping the studio with digital broadcast equipment in the next four years. A partnership with the cable TV company Cleveland Comcast will enable the university to operate a community channel that could reach half the local population. The studio has often responded to requests from the region's BBC and ITV studios for their own old programmes, since it took over the regional broadcasters' film archives.

To avoid becoming an archipelago of multimedia islands, the university plans a major investment in networks. Sony, which has donated Pounds 120,000 towards the project, will use the Teesside campus as a testbed for multimedia networking. "We get new technology, and if all goes well they can use us as a shop window," said university spokesman Nic Mitchell.

Higher education has become an important market for audiovisual and multimedia equipment, according to Chris Histed, publisher of AV magazine and organiser of next week's Advanced Business Communications exhibition. He said that equipment is bought for media courses, of which there are now about 450 in Britain. The University of Sunderland has built a new media centre equipped with Pounds 500,000 worth of digital video equipment. Newly built lecture halls frequently have large video screens, allowing medical students, for example, to watch operations as they happen. "Most teaching hospitals have a videoconferencing facility," Mr Histed said.

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