People enjoy colorful cities—even in virtual reality

People enjoy colorful cities—even in virtual reality thumbnail

Not long after the Industrial Revolution kicked off in England, Romantic poet William Blake famously lamented a country lost beneath “dark satanic mills.” He’s not always wrong: Today’s cities might include the prefab slabs of Eastern Bloc micro-districts, the drab facades and decrepit lots that dot the US Rust Belt, or an Arctic industrial hellscape like Norilsk–one of the most polluted cities on Earth.

But a modern city can just as easily be filled with verdant gardens or splashes of color: from Jodhpur’s azure to Jaipur’s pink to the rainbows of Bristol in the UK or Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap neighborhood.

Scientists believe that vibrant environments can have a positive impact on the health and well-being of their inhabitants. The latest evidence to support that–in a study published Friday in the journal Frontiers in Virtual Reality–comes from, well, VR.

“Virtual reality was used as a proof of concept to demonstrate that colors could be a powerful tool to trigger alertness and pleasure in gray urban cities,” says Yvonne Delevoye-Turrell, a psychologist at the University of Lille in France and one of the paper’s authors, in a statement.

Delevoye-Turrell and colleagues crafted a virtual recreation of their university’s campus: paved paths winding through a cluster of modernist buildings. They created two versions of the campus: one that was gray and drab, and another that was decorated with greenery. They decorated some of the paths with multicolored polygons and made the gray one more attractive.

The researchers then immersed students from their university into each variant, and sent them on a virtual walk. Normal walkers would speed through an uninspiring environment, focusing on the ground and losing their minds. If walkers slow down or look around, it is a sign they have found something stimulating and fascinating.

When test subjects walked along patterned pathways, their heartbeats accelerated and their walking speed slowed. The colors also drew attention to their eyes. Researchers observed the same effect of the many-colored pixels on students who walked the green campus instead of the gray one. However, it was more prominent.

People enjoy colorful cities—even in virtual reality
Bright polygons splashed across walkways draw the gaze of virtual pedestrians. University of Lille

It’s a single study that only considers one sense and one type environment. Researchers want to expand it. Delevoye Turrell says that “Odors, sounds, and vibrations could be the next step in VR to really test the impact colors have on the pleasure of walking.”

This study is just the latest in a flurry of interest in how architecture and urban design relate to the human brain. “Urban designers are hungry for this kind of information,” says Leia Minaker, a public health researcher at the University of Waterloo in Ontario who wasn’t involved with the Lille group’s paper. “They want to do the best work possible… They want equity and health in their cities

Researchers have repeatedly shown that being around vegetation grants boosts to people’s mood and attention. One recent study, published in May, found that children were more interested in and engaged with visually rich building elements, including greenery.

Many of these researchers have turned to virtual reality in the past decade. “VR is used for a variety of different things,” says Adrian Buttazzoni, a doctoral student at the University of Waterloo who was also not involved in the paper.

Researchers are able to virtually recreate an urban environment, such as a neighborhood, park, or campus, like the Lille group. They can then track how people navigate and their sensory responses. This data was often obtained from questionnaires in previous research. However, the self-reported answers may not be as reliable.

[Related: This VR accessory is designed to make your mouth feel stuff]

Some even believe that VR could help future architects and designers during the planning stage. Perhaps architects could create a campus or park in virtual reality and let people experience it. Then, they can judge their reactions.

This type of research can lead to real-world changes, Minaker states. Minaker says, “We’re trying give people concrete evidence so they can create policies or guidelines that will help create healthier cities.”

The study by the Lille group seems to give more scientific evidence for what might seem obvious: A little color here and a few bursts in vegetation there can bring life to a city. Researchers find that this conclusion is not always obvious, despite it being quite obvious.

” When you talk to people about their built environment, and you actually have a discussion about the different designs of places that they likely walk through every day,” says Buttazzoni. “They’re quite surprised at just how little they pay attention these different places .”

After all, even Norilsk has its share of brightly colored housing blocks.

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