The Amazing Things You Can Learn From a Virtual City

This new tool can help us understand how people respond to urban spaces before they're built.

When the University of Waterloo in Ontario opened the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments back in 2006, there was a lot that could be studied about simulated cities that couldn't be observed in real ones. Where people's gazes landed on the urban streetscape. How their stress levels rose and fell in certain built surroundings. What their brains processed as they walked from block to block.

Technology has since made it easier to make such measurements in people moving through actual cities, and RELIVE researchers have traveled to New York, Mumbai, and beyond doing just that. But the virtual lab still offers them a critical advantage: control over all the variables in a complex urban environment. The psychologists at RELIVE wield that power to understand just how people respond to cities — which in turn might help planners design better ones.

"Rather than looking at what happens to people in urban settings after they're built, you can propose different kinds of designs and explore their effects on people's behavior before they happen," says lab director Colin Ellard. "We see it as potentially a fantastic toolkit for asking questions about what does or doesn't work in planning."

To date, RELIVE researchers have used virtual cities to learn what cues help travelers find their way in dense places, the impact that urban green space has on cognitive functioning, and how emotions alter the way people process their surroundings. Some of the elements of urban life created in the lab — with tools like Google Sketchup — are basic architectural facades. Other simulations represent extremely complicated places, like the famous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo.

A simulated Shibuya crossing (RE.L.I.V.E. / via The Guardian)
Actual Shibuya at night. (Michael Day via Wiki Commons)

In one recent RELIVE study, led by Kevin Barton, researchers designed two types of cities and observed how test participants navigated through each. One of the virtual cities had a very tidy spatial layout, as you might find in Manhattan (below, top). The other had a rather messy one, as in London (bottom). Even though both environments were new to the test participants, they found their way with a greater "efficiency and directness" in the first type of city.

The big challenge to working in a virtual lab is making it as representative of reality as possible. That means including digital people within the digital places — few pedestrians get the Shibuya crossing to themselves, after all — and making sure participants buy into the experimental situations. If properly immersed, says Ellard, a test participant will react to a threat in a RELIVE city as they would to one in a live city.

"If you stand someone in the middle of a busy virtual street with cars rushing every direction, you're going to get some of the same kind of physiological buzz you get in a real place," says Ellard. "We know this is true." (The lab has even put people on virtual train tracks and watched their fear levels surge as a virtual train approaches. "It's kind of fun," he says.)

Ultimately the lab might use virtual worlds to enhance findings initially made in the real one. Ellard recently teamed up with author Charles Montgomery to study how people responded to crossing Houston Street, in New York's Lower East Side. A logical follow-up, says Ellard, might be to simulate the same crossing and see precisely where people failed to pay attention to risks. The outcome, of course, could be a safer street design.

"In the discussions that I've had with planners, in particular, one of the things they told me is that one of the greatest challenges in terms of influencing policies that might make cities more amenable is data," says Ellard. "I think there'd be great power in having that kind of data from an experimental science of cities that you could use to bolster arguments for particular kinds of policies."

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