Using virtual reality to build inclusive urban spaces

“The CEE-VR project is the latest development in our Department's groundbreaking work investigating how virtual reality can be used in urban design and planning processes. The project, led by Dr Bobby Nisha, is truly innovative, enabling cutting edge insights into how people visually appraise virtual environments.

The project also enables our students to develop advanced skills in design and analysis that will position them at the forefront of their field. Moreover, working alongside communities ties in with our Departmental mission to engage diverse groups in society in the planning and management of their own spaces.”

Prof. Malcolm Tait, Head of Department, Urban Studies & Planning

CEE-VR is an immersive gaming experience developed by a project team at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield. The gaming experience was developed to engage the local community, especially young adults, in the redevelopment of their neighbourhood as recreated in virtual reality. The project seeks to understand the experience, interaction, and perception of space while engaging in a virtual walkthrough with immersive visualisation technology.

The study aims to address the following questions:

  • What does gaze behaviour reveal about the perception and processing of spatial information when completing different navigation tasks?
  • How does gaze behaviour relate to spatial movement decision-making and to visuospatial properties of the choice alternatives?
  • How does spatial configuration affect visual attention during wayfinding?
  • What is the use and application of immersive virtual reality as a community engagement tool?

participant gaze patterns

Eye tracking

Eye tracking is the process of measuring and recording gaze positions and eye movements of an individual. This study employs eye tracking to understand how urban areas are used and, possibly, to obtain insights into users’ reasoning and problem solving in spatial navigation.

“CEE-VR takes the benefit of using immersive technology in the design process to the local community, brings together public and private sector and generates further eye gaze data to carry on the sector leading research. With the innovative use of VR analytics, this initiative facilitates intergenerational dialogue, creative expression, and youth engagement in fostering sustainable communities.”

Dr. Bobby Nisha, CEE-VR Project lead

Immersive play

The immersive gaming experience was designed as a playful task that combined predefined Areas of Interest (AOIs) and movement between the AOIs. The predefined AOIs were targets that users search for in a Virtual Reality scavenger hunt — participants are dropped off at a bus stop and tasked with collecting three hidden objects. The transitions between the AOIs and their temporal order is captured to discover the user’s strategies in visual exploration, search and performing given tasks.


Teddy bear, blue dice and volleyball

“The use of VR in urban design and place making is a game changer. This immersive technology has massive potential in terms of understanding how humans engage with the built environment. From pedagogical innovations to community engagement to the creation of inclusive, safe and sustainable urban spaces, this project is pushing the boundaries of what is possible and imaginable.”

Ryan Powell, Director of Research and Reader in Urban Studies

Eye movement analysis in virtual reality

The data set produced through immersive play is used to examine the characteristics of movements; to examine spatial patterns of eye gaze movements; to study the relationship of eye gaze movements to the immersive environment and its connection to sense of being/sense of place; to understand individual searching strategies in comparison to theoretically optimal strategies, find typical paths, user difficulties, repeated movements and scanning behaviours.

This interdisciplinary study brings our students as researchers, so they are involved in sector leading research along with civic engagement opportunities:

“Working on the project helped me to widen my knowledge about VR technology and its application in urban design. I had the opportunity to see design and technology integrate in innovative ways like never before.”

Nathania Damara, MA in Urban Design and Planning student

“The application of immersive technology as a research method and what it can tell us about user/space relationship is fascinating. The opportunity to engage with research participants from different backgrounds enabled me to understand emerging perspectives in urban design research.”

Chang Xu, MA in Urban Design and Planning student

“Working on this project has been a fantastic opportunity to contribute to pioneering research exploring the relationship between mind and space. Employing the latest Virtual Reality and eye-tracking technologies as a means of data collection has allowed us to gain unique insights into human behaviour.”

Blagovesta D Tacheva, PhD research student

Read more about Dr Bobby Nisha's work with virtual reality

This research has been funded by the Faculty of Social Sciences HEIF (Higher Education Innovation Fund) with data collection in Summer 2019.