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Booming investment puts UK creative tech centre stage

Posted 23 Apr 2024

With a recent investment of over £150 million in creative tech R&D, the government continues to recognise the success of the creative industries as a key driver of economic growth. Digital Catapult sits at the core of harnessing this, and other, significant investments in the sector to nurture, drive impact and develop the UK’s world-class creative innovation..

A UK House event during this years’ SXSW explored the purpose and impact of the government’s CreaTech R&D investments, discussing groundbreaking new projects and the advancements that are making it possible for smaller UK companies to compete with the biggest studios in London and Los Angeles. 

Jessica Driscoll, Director of Immersive Technology at Digital Catapult, discussed the importance of sharing learnings across projects and regions, as well as foresighting future developments and skills needs in the industry at large, and about how we are doing just that by growing a national infrastructure for creative tech R&D alongside our partners around the UK. Our work of engagement and dialogue with industry players in the UK and the US over the last four years around disruptive media production technologies laid the groundwork and built the case for public investment in the creative sector. 

The CoSTAR national network, established with £76m of funding, comprises a National Lab, three Network Labs and a Foresight Lab which is led by Goldsmiths psychology professor Jonny Freeman. As the rest of the world invests heavily in creative R&D, the UK must ensure its creatives have the tools and facilities to be leaders in new ways of working to maintain the country’s leading position. Engaging smaller studios and new businesses to support the development of the UK sector as a whole is key to this.

Building an immersive community

Digital Catapult has been a leader in building immersive infrastructure around the UK for many years. Jessica Driscoll explained how Digital Catapult opened immersive labs in London, Belfast and Gateshead followed by the flagship immersive accelerator CreativeXR, in partnership with Arts Council England. Between 2017 and 2021, CreativeXR supported the development of sixty immersive prototypes with £2 million funding; many of these completed works have featured in major film and industry festivals, cultural venues and storefronts worldwide and attracted further production and distribution funding from UK and international funds, contributing to inward investment into the UK and fostering international production connections for UK creatives.

At the same time, Digital Catapult launched Augmentor, an accelerator programme designed to help early-stage immersive startups become investment ready. Augmentor supported 26 companies over three years – one success story from that programme is startup Gravity Sketch, whose product allows creatives to visualise product design in a 3D environment, which has gone on to raise more than £30 million in funding since graduating from Augmentor. 

“We started building the immersive community from a Digital Catapult perspective but always linking it with related projects. Then the thinking moved to: what do we see coming; what have we foresighted? We’re the little speed boats saying ‘how about we go this way?’ and then feeding back the learnings, especially about the networking side.” 

Building on the foundations of the network of immersive labs, Digital Catapult established the Advanced Media Production studios, the UK’s first network of studio facilities that enable research and innovation in partnership with Target3D. Together, the companies are working to make immersive creative projects sustainable (both environmentally and commercially), how to provide access to tools to experiment and push forward the boundaries of content production, and delivering skills and training programmes to industry and academic partners.

The chance for creators to experiment

Sarah Ticho, founder and director of Hatsumi, discussed the impact of funding on creative development and the opportunities that arose via StoryFutures and CreativeXR. Hatsumi’s latest project, Soul Paint, developed from an idea Sarah had at a festival in Australia into a fully realised immersive experience which premiered at SXSW 2024, winning the XR Experience Special Jury Award. 

Soul Paint is a narrative XR body-mapping experience helping users express how and where their emotions are felt in their body. It was clear the project needed a unique space for development, said Sarah: “We were for a long time seen as too arty for the science funds and too sciencey for the arts funds.”  

Joining CreativeXR provided the perfect R&D process for Hatsumi, one that fully understood the vision and value of an experience that sits not just in the creative sector but across health and wellness tech as well. Sarah’s vision is for Soul Paint to help people have conversations with their doctor, and for medical professionals to include XR experiences in their therapeutic toolkit.

Distribution of such experiences and bringing them to a wide user base is a problem not yet solved, but which creators are thinking about and investing in. Hatsumi received funding for R&D of immersive wellbeing projects in libraries and found that two weeks after installation and user testing at Maidenhead Library, it could demonstrate how libraries, as community settings, have great potential for XR storytelling. Hatsumi hopes Soul Paint’s R&D will pave the way for a whole range of experiences across the UK and internationally, too.

Helping smaller enterprises compete

For projects like Soul Paint, funding is an enabler of experimentation. Other projects have found it has enabled them to compete in the market with bigger players, by developing tools to work more quickly and efficiently, minimising laborious tasks and working at scale. 

Bristol-based Lux Aeterna is part of MyWorld, an innovative tech programme led by the University of Bristol with programmes delivered by Digital Catapult. Rob Hifle, Lux Aeterna’s CEO and MyWorld experimental lead, told SXSW how investment allowed Lux Aeterna to experiment with AI tools that help to make the creative pipeline more efficient. This AI VFX toolset technology was researched and developed through MyWorld’s Catalysts and Connectors: Tools for the Creative Industries funding call delivered by Digital Catapult. 

The creative pipeline for VFX – from storyboarding to delivery, via animatics, pre-vis, 3D and motion graphics – is complex, but can now be automated. Lux Aeterna has invested in working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) for cloud rendering to enable it to move much more quickly. The VFX toolset allows Lux Aeterna to build detailed environments at speed and perform renders that would take a 3D artist hours to do. This has particular benefits in world building for documentary drama production and means Lux Aeterna is now competing with big VFX companies in London and LA. 

These tools allow artists to spend more time on the creative, and means “we can punch above our weight and work at scale. That’s what [MyWorld] has given to us. It’s made us ready; it’s made us competitive. It means we can compete with high volume.”

Supporting centres of excellence around the UK

Partnerships are crucial to making this happen and getting the best outcomes, particularly international partnerships. Digital Catapult brought in NVIDIA and AWS to MyWorld as both companies were able to see it’s not only in London where innovation happens at scale. Centres of excellence in technology-led creative R&D are emerging across the country, providing an insight for global companies on the capabilities and opportunities in cities outside London. 

As Jessica Driscoll told the panel at SXSW: “Large companies like NVIDIA and AWS might not know about all the regional work in the UK so it’s been a real pleasure to shine a light on that. The story of small regional companies being comfortably able to compete with LA is a great one for international partners to hear about the UK, and take back with them.” 


Digital Catapult champions the critical importance of weaving creative and industrial strands together so large scale investments are truly UK-wide and capture the full picture of current trends and future needs across the UK’s creative industries. To find out more about the Innovate UK BridgeAI programme click here, or get updates on all our CreaTech work via our newsletter.