Dulles International Airport wayfinding signage

+ Publishing 3D models online would enable designers to test their models with thousands of users and get valuable early feedback.

What if you could carry out a post-occupancy evaluation before your design is even built? That, in effect, is what I believe 3D gaming technology now enables us to do.

By creating a synthetic environment, your design model becomes a beta version published online for stakeholders and end users to explore in virtual reality. As they move through your design for a train station, hospital or other building, they can give you feedback you can use to improve the finished project – with changes at this stage costing much less than they would later in the process.

Feedback can take two forms. The system can log the routes people take through a space – showing where they slow down or stop as they look for their way around, for example. You can also ask people to tell you what they’re thinking as they explore a particular environment.

I’ve seen the benefits of this approach first-hand with the simulation Arup created for the extension to the MTR Admiralty Underground Station in Hong Kong. Already one of the busiest stations in the world, Admiralty is doubling its platforms from four to eight. These will be spread over seven underground levels served by 48 escalators. Creating effective wayfinding in such an environment is difficult to say the least.

So our wayfinding experts in Hong Kong asked a group of users to navigate the station simulation and complete a series of tasks. We recorded the routes they took and their descriptions of how they navigated the space. Drawing on this data, we advised the client to relocate or modify around 30% of the signage (the client accepted about half of the changes advised) to more effective locations – saving them money by doing this at an early stage rather than post-construction.

Having seen the benefits of this approach, we wondered what would happen if we got feedback from a bigger group of people. So we set up the 3D model of Admiralty station in an unmanned kiosk at the Venice Biennale and asked visitors to complete one of the tasks we had previously set the smaller group of users. More than 1,000 people completed the task and we are now analysing the results.  

We are hoping to find additional evidence to support more the wayfinding changes we recommended to our client. And who knows, analysing the data from so many users may show us some things we cannot yet conceive.

Now, just imagine how much feedback you could get by publishing the model online for a much wider audience to interact with. That’s what we’re working on now with a company called 3D Repo

Early crowd-sourced feedback on a beta model would reduce costs and save time by enabling changes earlier in the programme – and produce a better result at the end of the process.

This is something I firmly believe could make a big difference to the way public buildings and cities are designed and built.