Using virtual reality to create future streets

In 2020, Digital Urban, These Four Words and Phoboz Interactive began a collaboration using virtual reality to change how people saw the future of their communities. Our aim is to enable people to experience the potential for their streets without using vocabulary such as ‘interventions’, ‘street furniture’ or ‘Dutch-style’ bus-stop.

We worked with One Trafford (a partnership between Amey and Trafford Council) to create two virtual reality experiences for the Trafford community so that residents in Urmston, Flixton, Davyhulme East and Davyhulme West could time-travel through street as a pedestrian or on a bicycle, first witnessing the streets as they typically are today, and then with some of the changes which the community had proposed. And yes, these include Dutch-style bus-tops.

Over 100 people enjoyed the pedestrian and cycling experiences. The great graphics, life-like noises and vibrations from traffic, created in Unreal meant that these were immersive experiences and had people physically dodging in their seats to avoid close-passing cars or jarring their bodies when they walked down a particularly high kerb (as opposed to a ‘dropped-one’ – more lingo!)

We were delighted with the feedback from the Urmston Active Neighbourhood launch event. Around 600 people of all ages, from all over Trafford came, listened to speakers including Deputy Leader of Trafford Council, Councillor Catherine Hynes and Manchester’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner Chris Boardman and gave their opinions to the council. Chris Boardman talked about the need to see how streets can be – and that’s why our work was enjoyed by so many.

The scenarios were created to exacting highways standards thanks to the guidance of the project team at One Trafford and the clear narrative from our team setting the scene at the event meant people felt comfortable sitting down and buzzing once they were standing up again. The initial consultation has come to an end and the Project Team are currently working on proposals from approximately 3000 comments received from the public. We are hoping to collaborate with Amey and One Trafford on future events. Our first gave us lots to think about.

Virtual reality is not just for gamers

Digital Urban ran immersive virtual reality experiences at the RHS Flower Shows in 2018 and 2019 so we know older people enjoy virtual reality experiences. We had the same experience in Trafford. We’ve received invitations to share the experience with people in Trafford’s care homes. Again, Digital Urban has experience here too – and received positive feedback from residents and carers.

Next steps

Some learnings: our experience was enjoyed by people with hearing and visual impairments for the first time. The pre-briefing worked well as we could not give a narrative when users were immersed. We need to add a ‘The End’ graphic and we could create a BSL signed-narrative at the start of the experience for occasions when we do not have a translator.  We were surprised that it could be enjoyed by someone with a visual impairment. For this reason we will do more testing of future iterations with our contacts in Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People.

More next steps

The next iteration of our collaboration builds in non-tech with the tech which makes it even savvier. We’re measuring the impact of our engagement in building empathy and ownership and are working with councils, planners and infrastructure providers to build safer, cleaner and happier communities.

P.S.

A Dutch-style bus-stop is one which sits in front of a bike lane (or if you’re in Manchester, like the ones on Oxford Road.)

Get involved or find out more

Digital Urban uses data visualisation to create and shape better places to help towns and cities realise their ambitions. Follow its work.

Phoboz Interactive create exacting models to bring stories to life. Follow its work.

Author: Sarah E Galligan

Corporate social responsibility and communications professional working with great companies for great causes.

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