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Virtual landscapes as a tool for exploring environmental attitudes

Dr Christopher Hassall, Dr Guy Ziv, Dr Martin Dallimer, Dr He Wang

Environmental management requires a combination of natural and social perspectives in order to promote and maintain healthy ecosystems that are supported by the general public. To explore public acceptance of environmental management, studies often make use of surveys wherein participants are provided with verbal, written, or graphical descriptions of particular management options. However, all of these approaches place a degree of distance between the participants and the landscapes that they are being asked to evaluate. In an ideal situation, participants would be taken to the landscape in question, but where modifications are hypothetical or planned, those modifications cannot be incorporated into site visits. A valuable addition to this process would be the creation of a virtual environment within which various landscapes (modified and current) can be presented to participants to evaluate their environmental preferences and, ultimately, improve the co-creation of multifunctional urban spaces.

The project would map fine-scale Ordnance Survey data for three candidate locations into a virtual reality game engine (Unity3D or Unreal). The aim is to create landscapes that could be used in the sort of preference studies described above, and this will be piloted by creating variations on the three landscapes to evaluate the addition of more natural features (trees, floral patches). These alternative landscapes will then be tested in pilot studies alongside focus group testing using either an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift set-up, within which they would be free to roam the landscape. A contingent valuation questionnaire will be used to evaluate landscape preferences, as well as test the performance of the virtual environment. The project will provide a pipeline for the conversion of real landscapes into virtual environments, with application in a large number of subsequent projects. This could include a PhD project that would apply this technique to real world scenarios.

The project would suit a computer science undergraduate with experience of virtual reality (either Unreal or Unity3D), and would provide an excellent introduction to environmental science, sustainability and socio-ecology alongside the technical skills that the student would develop.