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April 20, 2023

Can immersive technology help to close the UK’s digital skills gap?

Smart use of immersive technology like VR and AR can help future-proof businesses and help to close the national digital skills gap.

By Dr Vicki Williams

Immersive technologies remain at the epicentre of future-facing innovation activity, with The Data City estimating that the sector could be worth £2.6bn in the UK by 2027. With increasing investment and interest, in part due to renewed global attention on the possibilities of ‘the metaverse’, there are more opportunities than ever to explore the broad-ranging potentiality of advanced digital technologies that increasingly blur the distinctions between physical and digital environments. 

Skills are a significant part of this broader picture, with innovation and skills being the two sides of the same coin. In the current context of skills shortages across the nation, immersive technology holds the potential to enhance traditional skills and training methodologies. To deliver impact and to ensure that immersive technologies can support skills initiatives at scale, access to and understanding of the technology across the country is of vital importance.

virtual reality training
Virtual reality platforms could help boost accessibility to training for thousands of workers up and down the UK – and help close the national digital skills gap in the bargain. (Photo by Max4e Photo/Shutterstock)

Skills shortages 

In a broader context, the UK is currently facing a challenging skills and labour supply gap across a range of sectors. Digital skillsets are also in short supply. There are a number of factors driving these wider-reaching shortages: economic uncertainty in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, for one, not to mention the impact of the UK’s decision to leave the EU on associated flows of migrant labour, and the twin transitions towards digitisation and net-zero, which are liable to change occupational and job structures. With this context in mind, transferable and adaptable skill sets are a key priority for employers to drive economic growth across the nation. 

More than ever, ensuring that skills and training initiatives align with the evolving needs and requirements of employers in the labour market is vital to ensure that growth hits all parts of the UK, supporting a diverse and inclusive workforce and ensuring that places, and people, are not left behind. The government’s ‘Skills for jobs’ white paper emphasises its focus on ensuring that people across the UK are set up with the skills they need to support key sectors of the economy. In addition to educational qualifications, emphasis has shifted towards the concept of ‘lifelong learning,’ enabling people at all stages of their careers to access the skills they need to be successful no matter their age. Aligning skills in this way is a challenge, and requires ongoing engagement between employers, education providers and policymakers. 

Immersive technology’s potentiality

When we talk about truly immersive technologies, like virtual and augmented reality, we refer to the capacity of these technologies to make their users feel part of a digital environment, forging a sense of presence and enabling embodied interactions with digital information. Such capabilities have been proven to positively impact skills training, in contrast to more traditional skills and training methods. 

For instance, a study undertaken by PwC showed that VR learners were more likely to be focused, learn more quickly, and be more emotionally connected and confident in applying skills learned in soft-skills training simulations. As such, immersive technologies hold significant potential to support lifelong learning ambitions, innovating beyond traditional learning methods and giving people the opportunity to learn by doing, before doing. VR, for example, has enabled this for over two decades now, from helping to train pilots in flight simulations to allowing trainee doctors to practise procedures on virtual patients.

Skills offerings from immersive companies in the UK continue to evolve. Bodyswaps, an award-winning VR platform that creates realistic simulations with AI-enabled feedback, has developed a number of training applications that enable users to safely practise employability skills such as public speaking, leadership and equality, diversity and inclusion. In their soft-skills framework, the company outlines the design of their applications to elicit emotional engagement, psychological safety and self-coaching to provide personalised experiences that respond to user input. 

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Bodyswaps previously participated in Digital Catapult’s Augmentor Programme, and have since achieved incredible success in driving immersive skills capabilities forwards. Most recently, the company launched an immersive soft skills training initiative with Meta to give institutions across the UK opportunities to pilot the use of immersive learning. AI-enabled immersive training is also evolving with the use of natural language processing tools like ChatGPT, lowering the costs of immersive content creation for skills and training. VirtualSpeech is just one example of a startup that’s embedded ChatGPT into their immersive simulations, the better for users to interact with avatar characters through real-time generated dialogue. 

virtual reality training immersive technology
Flight simulators are a tried and tested example of training platforms where individuals can learn through doing at no risk to the business. VR and AR platforms promise to expand this opportunity to new sectors and applications. (Photo by Mario Hagen/Shutterstock)

Achieving real impact with immersive technology

Digital Catapult is also busy harnessing immersive technologies to help close the national digital skills gap out of a range of technology labs in our Northern Ireland, North East Tees Valley and London offices. Our Immex City Pilot Programme, for example, delivered in partnership with Gateshead Council, was designed to catalyse the scale-up potential of Gateshead’s immersive technologies sector. The project afforded local industry access to immersive technologies as well as delivered experiences that could be accessed by local communities. Its central ambition was to equip the local ecosystem with new skills and provide new training opportunities, drive investment in place, and reduce barriers to employment in immersive digital jobs. 

Such initiatives will be critical not only to give people the opportunity to interact with these technologies, but also to build the future workforce through digital skills and training. This pilot programme will form the basis for the extension of a regional skills offering, with the recent launch of a new Advanced Media Production facility at PROTO, Gateshead. The facility will enable access to virtual production and 3D technologies, providing greater capability in the North East for the screen industries, particularly filmmaking and games development. 

Such programs are essential given the emergent digital skills gap here in Britain. The UK’s 2022 Immersive Economy report highlighted that 79% of survey respondents stated that finding immersive talent was a significant barrier to growth, with skills including real-time 3D, Unity and Unreal Engine developers, and technical artists being in short supply. Our national digital skills gap is exacerbated by the broader context of ‘technological convergence’, where technologies like AI, IoT and immersive work in tandem to deliver new use cases across sectors. Digital Twins, for example, can enable virtual replicas of systems such as car engines or complex environments – enabled by IoT sensors, AI and accessed via immersive technologies. 

Running such platforms will require a whole range of skills from across the technology spectrum, from games engine development through to software engineering, security and data modelling. As such, providing access to VR and AR by bringing key stakeholder groups and organisations together to establish novel use cases and accelerating adoption remains vitally important in realising the multifaceted potentials of immersive and convergent technologies.

Commitment to helping solve skills challenges in the UK

The wider Catapult Network’s ‘Shaping Future Skills’ initiative has affirmed its commitment to supporting skills and training across sectors in the UK, as well as conducting a broader skills foresighting activity to better understand future skills needs across application areas. Immersive technologies are one significant part of this future-facing exercise, with Digital Catapult exploring the skills that will be needed in order to drive Advanced Media Production forward in the UK, with a focus on games engine skill foresighting.

Digital Catapult supports companies across the UK in identifying ways in which advanced digital technologies can solve challenges, and forges new connections across the ecosystem to share knowledge and expertise. Companies at the start of their immersive innovation journey can apply for our existing programmes, and explore our previous activity. Through our FutureScope programme, we can connect companies so that they can engage with technically validated startups and scale-ups who are already enrolled.  

Digital Catapult will also be hosting a workshop this month in collaboration with the OECD to address new skills and capabilities requirements in the context of science, technology and innovation. You can read more about it here.

Read more: Smart glasses are making a comeback. Have they got any smarter?

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