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Singaporean boffins tame urban jungle with VR simulation of vertical greenery

Experiment shows that a few more plants make for a lot less stress

Researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University have used virtual reality to simulate urban greenery, and believe their work proves that the presence of plants can make us all a little calmer.

The boffins, who published their research in Landscape and Urban Planning [pdf], wrote:

Although there is growing research interest in urban forms of nature such as green roofs, indoor plants and window views, no experimental study has been done to examine the psycho-physiological benefits of having a row of buildings covered in vertical greenery.

But how does a researcher conduct an immersive and well-controlled investigation, avoiding confounding variables, in an environment that doesn’t yet exist to the level needed for the study?

Enter VR.

“VR can be used to create experimental settings where comparable real-life environments are not available,” wrote the team, adding that using VR increases “the possibility of precise replication which is a major challenge in today’s psychological research.”

In the study, 111 participants wearing VR headsets were randomly assigned to walk down a virtual street containing either rows of projected planted greenery or buildings painted green for five minutes.

Youtube Video

The virtual cityscape was developed by the NTU researchers using the Unity platform and the participants wore full auditory and visual immersion HTC VIVE Pro headsets. A program tracked the movement of two wireless controllers attached to the participants’ knees as they walked along two fixed handlebars in an attempt to synchronize the users’ visual senses with their movements and prevent motion sickness. The researchers avoided use of a treadmill for cost reasons, and to make the experience feel more natural to the study participants.

The team used a one-minute looped audio clip of traffic noise created with Audacity software to simulate an actual city environment.

Youtube Video

Participant heart rate variability was measured through a portable electrocardiogram ECG device – a physiological indicator of stress. The participants were then given questionnaires to assess their emotions and anxiety.

The study found those who viewed buildings with greenery had higher feelings of positivity than those who just saw buildings painted in green.

“While previous studies looked at effects of green vegetation, the fact that the colour green could simply be a primitive visual feature, resulting in positive effects, was not considered. Thanks to emerging technology like VR, we overcame this limitation and were able to use a control condition, matching vertical greenery with the colour green in our study,” wrote the researchers.

Chuffed by their ability to overcome resource restraints, the team plans to use VR again. The next study will investigate the psychological impact of using nature in architecture – for example wood instead of concrete. ®

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