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VR and community outreach programs: Building social acceptance with immersive technology

March 30, 2023

By Eric Boileau

Virtual reality is a powerful tool for rallying the public and stakeholders around a project. It is the next level of community engagement.

They say that seeing is believing. But being immersed in a built environment that hasn’t yet been built? It’s a powerful experience that is having a major impact in our industry.

Virtual reality (VR) is no longer reserved for the video games. In fact, it has been an integral part of the design, engineering, and architecture industry for many years now. The immersive technology has proven to be an enormous asset when it comes to presenting a development project to a broader audience, particularly during public consultation exercises.

As designers, we’re asked to create development concepts that will be shown to the public and stakeholders at public gatherings to get their feedback and support the decision-making process. This step is crucial for a clear understanding of a project and its impact. It’s our responsibility to produce presentations that are fair, audience-friendly, and easy for everyone to understand.

As a 3D specialist at our urban planning and landscape architecture studio in Montreal, I see how VR has become a power tool for visual communication, community outreach programs, and social acceptance. As an immersive technology, virtual reality can transform the public consultation process and achieve social acceptance of a project more quickly. Here’s how.

VR allows us to better understand our environment by providing users with an immersive experience.

Experiencing is believing

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then VR is worth a million. VR and 3D visualization tools have evolved considerably in just a few years. Among other things, they have benefited from investments by the gaming industry, in which Montreal is a global leader. The industry has diversified its tools to reach a broader range of professionals, such as designers, engineers, and architects. Although it was already possible to illustrate a project using 3D renderings and elevations, VR now gives us a 360-degree immersive tour of a site, just by putting on a VR headset. As part of a public consultation exercise, for example, the technology allows people to explore and move around the proposed environment and discover it from every angle. This way, the entire community can better imagine all the possibilities and benefits of a potential project.

To achieve social acceptance, changes to the initial proposal are sometimes required. With VR, it’s possible to change the environment’s parameters in order to view different scenarios in real time. For example, you can change the time of day to see the changing angles of the sun on a development or change seasons to see how the site looks with more or less vegetation. Building materials can also be changed to visualize the options that best suit the site setting or purpose. The population and project stakeholders therefore have more information available to express themselves and provide feedback on the project.

With VR, everything is visible. Unlike a simple 2D image, we can navigate into the heart of a project and enjoy a fully immersive experience, where we have the impression that we’re actually there. The virtual representation is not just faithful to the technical plans and features of a project (e.g. materials, lighting, plantings), but it also provides a realistic spatial relationship between the user and the environment. The project can be placed in its context and its full potential appreciated, optimizing the entire community’s outreach programs.

VR allows us to view different development scenarios in real time by changing the seasons, lighting, materials, and plantings, etc.

Building community buy-in

By its nature, a community outreach process is supposed to be interactive and participatory, as the purpose is to gather views from the public and stakeholders about a project that will affect their living environment. Therefore, when given the opportunity to see the future project on a human scale through VR, the participants feel directly engaged in the concept and proposal. Their immersive experience also gives us a direct understanding of the issues and concerns that affect participants, as well as on-the-spot comments and feedback. By navigating independently and at their own pace within a virtual design, participants become key, even critical, players in the project.

A property development project involves its share of uncertainties. As an interactive tool, VR can help address anticipated concerns and questions of the public and stakeholders earlier in the consultation process. For example, when we were working on a development concept for a new residential neighbourhood, we noticed that residents were concerned about the height of the new apartment building and how it would fit in with the landscape. By taking a virtual tour of the project, the residents could see that the building was not as imposing as they had imagined, and the proposed architecture did not affect visibility as they had initially thought. Their concerns about the new building dissipated and their trust in the project grew. This allowed the project's social acceptance process to move forward more quickly.

As an interactive tool, VR can help address anticipated concerns and questions earlier in a consultation process.

Making adjustments more quickly

Since VR allows us to enter and move about a project environment, it also gives us the opportunity to more quickly understand whether changes need to be made to a development concept or plan.

This is what happened when we were working on a public space redevelopment project that included a landscaped park. After touring the project using VR, we realized that a section of the park that was supposed to be a rest area had an open view facing directly onto a very busy boulevard. This view of the road had not been detected using traditional design tools because there was a more pronounced terrain slope than expected. Since we needed to respect the site purpose and the required ambiance for a rest area, we revised and improved the design by adding plantings to border the project space.

This simple addition made it possible to avoid redoing work after the park opened, which would have meant additional cost. In fact, correcting this type of feature at the design phase is much less costly than during construction. By pinpointing the problem quickly, we were able to save our client time and money in the end.

VR can help address anticipated fears and questions of the public and stakeholders in a public consultation process.

An indispensable tool for community outreach

VR allows us to better understand our environment by providing users with an immersive experience. It enables us to improve our relationship with the various project players by placing them at the heart of the projected vision. VR has moved beyond simple entertainment to become an indispensable tool for any development project, whether it’s a multi-sports venue, an environmentally friendly neighbourhood, or a commercial artery. In addition to being accessible and easy to use, this technology can be used for any type and size of project. We will make the most of this technology when we want our users to really get into the project, to move through it, and to live the experience.

It’s a formidable means of community outreach programs that has the potential to completely transform presentations and consultations and make your project come alive, whatever it may be. So, what will your next project look like?

  • Eric Boileau

    Eric is a 3D designer working in Stantec’s Montreal urban planning and landscape architecture studio. Taking part in development, transportation, and energy projects, he’s keen to learn about new applications for virtual reality in project work.

    Contact Eric
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