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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.
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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.