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Prototyping the Future of Urban Sound Planning

The sounds and noises we hear can have a big impact on the way we feel. That’s especially true in cities where you are constantly surrounded by the sounds of traffic passing by, sirens wailing in the distance and people going about their day. Designing the urban landscape so you can actually find some peace and quiet is key. But how do you know if a certain design will provides the actual improvement you’re looking for? An online public participation test does the trick.

That is what doctor Like Jiang’s research team at the Vanvitelli University in Naples figured out back in 2016: “I was a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Early Stage Researcher at that time, and was trying to develop theories and tools that would enable multisensory environmental evaluation in urban sound planning.

Involving the Public in Urban Redesign

Dr. Like Jiang’s work contributed to the SONORUS project, which brought students and researchers from across Europe together to change the way we approach urban planning in relation to sound. “We had a dream to plan the acoustic environments of our cities in a holistic way, by redesigning the urban environment rather than just preventing and controlling excess noise exposure”, Dr. Jiang explains. “This way, we aimed to support the wellbeing and health of people living in cities.

Dr. Jiang was tasked with the challenge of finding the right tools to evaluate the impact of certain city layouts on the soundscape. “Our aim was to develop a web-based demonstrator tool that could facilitate participatory evaluation of urban sound environments. Nowadays, innovations like this are more widely used to support decision making in urban planning. However, back in 2016, this kind of technology was mostly restricted to visualizing ideas and concepts.

Someone trying out the Sound Naples prototype at The Urban Sound Planning – International Symposium

The idea of using a virtual environment for online evaluation of soundscapes led to the Sound Naples project, focusing on the layout of Piazza Vittoria in Naples through public participation. “It was possibly the first attempt ever to develop an online tool like this to test a sound environment.
Dr. Jiang added that he was looking for a way to help researchers get as many study participants as possible, as inviting people to physically come over to test a sound environment in a virtual simulation would have been limiting.

Enter PreviewLabs

Dr. Jiang: “We wanted to gamify the experience because that would motivate and engage the participants more. Simulating real-life tasks allows immediate and intuitive behavioral and emotional responses. We didn’t have the in-house know-how to achieve this level of gamification. PreviewLabs, with its expertise in rapid prototyping with video game technology, does.

Dr. Jiang got to know PreviewLabs through an advertisement he posted on a forum. “I remember interviewing a few developers who reached out to me after publishing that ad. PreviewLabs simply stood out. They had already worked with academics on research projects and understood how our needs were different from those of a typical development client. When we talked with them, it was clear they understood what we wanted. To top that off, they made some suggestions on aspects we hadn’t considered yet.

The Prototype

In order to participate, research participants had to wear a good pair of headphones and play through the prototype in a quiet room. The prototype directed participants to move to certain positions on the Piazza. Once there, it asked some questions about the environmental sounds and your experience.

Wouter Durnez, PreviewLabs project manager at the time of the project (and now Ghent University researcher) detailing on the prototype.

With the data we gathered through the prototype, we were able to analyze the ways certain street designs and traffic management can improve the urban soundscape and human experience in the city of Naples. Apart from that, this tool was a great demonstration of how this technology could be used in public participation research.

Reflections on the Collaboration

Looking back on the project, dr. Jiang is glad he decided to look outside of the academic world for the development of the prototype. “Even though we would have been able to build this prototype with someone in academia, I’m sure it would have consumed a lot more time. It would have required us to plan further ahead and would possibly even have cost us more in time and resources.
Looking at some of the pitfalls, dr. Jiang considers the clients-provider relationship the biggest hurdle for himself. “As an academic researcher, I wasn’t familiar with being a client. I’m used to working with other academic or business partners. Especially making sure we wouldn’t go over the limited budget we had for this project was a challenge.

Fortunately, PreviewLabs is experienced in working with researchers and understands their needs and restrictions. A prototype might help your research too. If you have an idea, or are curious about what the possibilities are, feel free to reach out to us.

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