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The XR Lab at West Suffolk College in Bury St Edmunds that is extending reality for students and businesses





Taking inspiration from Tesla factories and the Men in Black movies, and offering students an opportunity to learn in a futuristic environment, this is the XR Lab.

Sited at West Suffolk College in Bury St Edmunds, this extraordinary creation was designed by Cambridge architects WindsorPatania.

“This is something special - something that has not been done before in the UK,” says architect director Giovanni Patania, who co-founded the firm with Ryan Windsor. “There is nothing else close to the specification of this XR Lab. It is a building with something unique and it has the power to inspire people.”

Ryan Windsor and Giovanni Patania, of WindsorPatania architects, at the XR Lab at West Suffolk College which they designed
Ryan Windsor and Giovanni Patania, of WindsorPatania architects, at the XR Lab at West Suffolk College which they designed

XR stands for extended reality. The building is designed to combine virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies and environments.

Built with £2million of government funding, it will enable students to learn in a fully immersive lecture theatre kitted out with wall-to-wall screens, video and motion capture studios, headsets and £60,000 haptic gloves.

If this is the post-16 education of the future, then we’ll all be wishing we were back at college.

XR Lab at West Suffolk College, designed by WindsorPatania architects
XR Lab at West Suffolk College, designed by WindsorPatania architects

“The comments we have had so far are that people are astonished by the building and how it connects to the function,” says Giovanni. “It is a building within a building, or hangar. It used to be a workshop, but the college got some funding to pay for an augmented reality centre.

“The college had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve in terms of impact. They said they wanted students to walk into the hangar and say ‘Wow! What is that?’

“Ryan and I were there when students were working - and that is the reaction we got.

“The exterior of the building was inspired by the Tesla Cybertruck. We wanted to capture the idea of something futuristic, almost like a spaceship landing in the hangar and we wanted to create a feeling of curiosity of what is inside. We have been told we achieved both.”

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And it’s little wonder that the government was interested in supporting such a project. The global augmented and virtual reality market is predicted to reach £130billion this year.

The Bury St Edmunds college, part of the Eastern Colleges Group, says: “XR Lab will serve to show what XR can do for a business and will strive to give student opportunities that will in turn support the creation of high-value employment opportunities within the region and beyond.”

In practice, this means students will be able to interact with digital components that do not exist in the physical world.

“Students can work in the space on 3D models,” explains Giovanni. “So instead of having an actual car, they can work on a virtual car and assemble it or dismantle it. And they could do the same for a wind turbine or a jet engine.

“They have gloves that make you feel like they are touching objects. If there is a handle, it makes it feel like there is resistance.

“They can do this while there is a lecture in the main theatre room. Students, or external guests, can also connect remotely and listen in.”

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Such technology has great potential to reshape vocational training - indeed, that is already happening.

Cambridge University Hospitals, for example, is involved in a project with Los Angeles-based GigXR using mixed reality - which merges real-life physical environments with hyper-realistic virtual elements - to help train medical students, nurses and doctors in clinical skills, using holographic patients that are interactive and responsive, virtual medical tools and evolving scenarios.

For Giovanni, it was important that the design of the XR Lab, inside Hangar 2 of the University Studies Building, created an inspiring environment to prepare students for this new world of learning.

“When walking into the space, we wanted the students to feel like the protagonists of an action movie. We want to empower them,” he says.

“We were inspired by Men in Black. When you enter the space, you see the futuristic gear on the walls. They are attracted to it, they wear the gear and they are ready for action. It’s like the Men in Black secret compartment of equipment!”

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It certainly has the look of Men in Black about it. But unlike in those movies, there’s no devices here to make you forget what you were doing… quite the opposite.

“There are four rooms in total in the XR Lab,” Giovanni continues. “One is the main lecture theatre, which has a £180,000 wall and four screens at the back to connect students remotely. There is a green room for 3D work and there is a smaller conference room used by lecturers to broadcast lessons and interact with students in the other three rooms. All the rooms are interconnected so they can try out new technology and experiment. They can see what other people in the other rooms are doing in real-time. They can speak with each other and contribute to each other’s work.”

It’s quite some transformation from the rather tired, uninspiring workshop with which Giovanni and Ryan were originally confronted.

“There was a massive roller shutter that we removed and we turned the opening into a curtain wall. We erected a dry wall on the perimeter of the whole hanger.

“We removed the hanging panels that were falling apart. We painted the whole thing in white to highlight the dark object in the middle. It gives the feeling of Tesla factories, which have white ceilings and coloured components.

“We wanted the external material to be metal originally, but it was too expensive and we realised that since we are inside a building, we didn’t need waterproof performance. We looked at what was on the market for plaster and we found a fantastic company that creates polished plaster for luxury interiors. We thought it was the best fit to give this enigmatic appearance to the object.

“The texture varies - it’s not homogenous. It looks like a rock but it’s highly reflective. If you look closely, it looks like a sheet of ice. We can turn on the lights and you can get different effects. It’s like Area 51 with an object hidden in the hangar!

“We designed the video wall and all the furniture in the lecture theatre was designed by us.

“There is a visual connection with what is going on outside - the shape of the feature wall on the outside is reflected in the furniture on the inside.”

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The area immediately outside the 300 square metre XR Lab now provides exhibition space.

“Students hold exhibitions from time to time in the library attached to this building but we felt like they needed a more contemporary space to enhance the value of their work, so we suggested the gallery all around for a space for exhibitions, so they can bring their pin-ups and show their work,” says Giovanni, who previously worked with Norman Foster in London, designing Apple Stores, including as lead architect on a prestigious three-year project to create the Champs-Élysées outlet in Paris.

“There is a little bit of Apple Store in this project, with the glass and display windows,” he notes.

But there was no chance of three years to put this project together.

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WindsorPatania worked at speed after Ryan learned of the opportunity in a chance meeting with the CEO of West Suffolk College while out for a run.

A former student and governor at the college, he pitched the firm’s services and within a week - before they had even been appointed - the team had prepared a concept, to positive effect.

“That was in November 2021,” recalls Giovanni. “It was a really tight deadline or they would not have got the government funds. We started in early January and it was completed in July.”

Construction company Coulson Building Group was tasked with taking on the construction of the work, working with Chelmsford-based Fusion Project Management.

Three launch events, each aimed at a different sector, are being lined up by the college.

“Arm has visited and we were told they were impressed,” notes Giovanni. Representatives from the Department for Education have also visited and given positive feedback.

The college intends to develop industry collaborations with its XR Lab.

In addition to providing skills and opportunities for its 15,000-strong student base, the facility could help businesses understand the potential of XR in their own sectors and upskill employees. Tailored apprenticeship and training programs are expected to be provided to help meet future needs of the business community.

As Ryan says: “The XR Lab is an innovative project with uses that go far beyond higher education, and could be of interest to businesses in fields as varied as medicine, surgery, engineering and landscaping.”

The possibilities are, well, unreal.

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UK leadership aim

The XR lab will be officially opened later this year, but has already hosted a number of high-profile events, including career festivals to promote work in the health sector and the creative industries.

It forms part of the University and Professional Development Centre, a post-18 arm of the Eastern Colleges Group, which works hand in hand with businesses and delivers university-level qualifications.

Dr Nikos Savvas, chief executive of the Eastern Colleges Group, said: “This is an incredibly exciting time for us as educators, for the businesses using this facility and for the talent the businesses can recruit.

“We are looking to be the leading institution for extended reality education and talent development for industries across post-16 education within the UK. This ambitious project gives our students an exceptional skill set and offers businesses unique opportunities in training, talent management and collaboration."

The group says the XR Lab will enable it to run ‘hub and spoke’ teaching and learning facilities.

In addition to the University and Professional Development Centre on the West Suffolk College site, the group runs West Suffolk College Sixth Form, Abbeygate Sixth Form College and The Built Environment Centre, all in Bury St Edmunds, One Sixth Form College in Ipswich and the North Cambridgeshire Training Centre (NCTC) in Chatteris. The NCTC offers apprenticeships and courses in engineering, manufacturing and business support.