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Back to the Future: Virtual Reality for Wayfinding Research

Virtual reality (VR) environments provide an excellent means by which to conduct innovative wayfinding research. By doing experiments in VR, researchers can learn a great deal about how people interact with complex built environments; namely, how people respond to unfamiliar structures and the means by which they orient themselves and learn to navigate. Data obtained from virtual reality for wayfinding research is of great value in its applications to developing real-world solutions.

Conducting VR Wayfinding Research

VR research for wayfinding creates an extensive base of knowledge that takes into account multiple factors, whether differences in individuals, in types of environments, or both. VR experiments can be used to study how individuals interact with hypothetical environments based on age, gender, disability or cultural differences. With the flexibility of VR, a researcher can create any kind of environment he or she wants and manipulate numerous conditions in the experiment to learn how people react, in the context of wayfinding, to a wide range of situations. Diversity of data translates into greater understanding, in the real world, of which wayfinding solutions will work best for buildings’ target populations or for the public at large.

People’s responses are easy to record and monitor using VR technology, and they aren’t put at risk with regard to their safety. They are also not subject to real-world distractions such as other people or high levels of noise. This way, researchers can better isolate behavioral and perceptual factors related to wayfinding that they wish to study.

When people interact with virtual environments, researchers get the data in real time, as though the people were interacting with actual environments. VR research can measure how quickly people find their way to destinations and how many mistakes they make getting there. Another benefit to using VR in wayfinding research is that it seems real enough to people for them to experience emotions, such as anxiety, which are similar to those they would experience in an actual built environment. The anxiety people feel when faced with unfamiliar environments – and how anxiety impacts their wayfinding performance – must be taken into account when designing effective wayfinding solutions that will result in positive experiences for the people who use them.

VR Research and People-Centered Wayfinding

Virtual reality for wayfinding research helps in the development of people-centered wayfinding solutions. Numerous scenarios can be studied in virtual space in order to apply new discoveries to real-world wayfinding issues. New knowledge obtained through VR research will help integrate wayfinding solutions into building new structures or renovating existing ones. The flexibility of VR and the sheer volume of data that can be obtained makes it possible for real-world wayfinding solutions to become more inclusive, efficient and functional.

With VR, researchers can study the complicated processes that are part of wayfinding. These processes have to do with what people already know – past experience with similar environments – and how people analyze new environments in light of what they’ve already learned in the past. This prior knowledge will differ from individual to individual and from environment to environment.

It’s also important to study how people tend to subdivide, for wayfinding purposes, an unfamiliar environment. They start with landmarks, and then they expand their familiarity to routes, and ultimately, they conceptualize progressively larger parts of the structure until they have become familiar with the entire structure. This process is best accomplished in environments that are cohesive, not confusing. VR research explores how people perceive the cohesiveness of layouts and can suggest possibilities for improvement.

Optimizing wayfinding for built environments depends largely on understanding how people perceive their environments. Perception as it relates to wayfinding is connected with visualization skills and verbal abilities. Virtual reality for wayfinding research can provide and analyze this varied data, helping designers come up with better and better wayfinding solutions.

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