Inside the huge lab where researchers test scooter sounds

“A building to house the world.” That’s what the architects of a remarkable new research lab in east London were tasked with designing.

The building in question is a gigantic testing ground for simulating life-size urban environments such as train stations, public squares and main streets. The goal is to understand how people of all abilities perceive and interact with these environments by simulating them under controlled conditions where everything from light and sound to how the ground can be configured to tilt in any which direction, can be controlled. The ultimate goal? Use these discoveries and redesign our environments using a factual understanding of how people move through space.

[Photo: ©Timothy Soar/courtesy Penoyre & Prasad]

The so-called Environment and Activity Research Laboratory (PEARL) was designed by London-based architectural firm Penoyre & Prasad, in collaboration with Nick Tyler, director of the Center for Transport Studies at the University College London. The building was completed in April 2021, but after almost a year of fine-tuning the technical interior, experimentation began.

[Photo: ©James Tye/courtesy Penoyre & Prasad]

The first item on the agenda is to determine what type of sound e-scooters could make to alert pedestrians to their presence, including lights for the hearing impaired. Other experiments will look at how people get on and off trains at busy stations, how softer rubber pavements could lessen the shock on our bodies, and how planes can be redesigned for better ergonomics (thanks to a decommissioned plane which will be installed in the inner courtyard and connect to the building by two walkways).

[Image: courtesy Penoyre & Prasad]

Spanning 43,000 square feet – with 32-foot-high ceilings and a span of over 130 feet – the building is equipped with more than 200 surround speakers, 300 specialty lights and other equipment, accessories, cameras and sensors to simulate a variety of conditions. “Essentially the building is one big trick box,” says Ian Goodfellow, Principal and Design Director at Penoyre & Prasad.

[Photo: ©James Tye/courtesy Penoyre & Prasad]

Most of the equipment is suspended from a series of platforms reminiscent of theater trusses. In fact, the architects took a lot of inspiration from the design of theaters. Goodfellow says they visited both the Royal Opera House and the National Theater in London. On the stage of the National Theater, they even had an awareness: In the theater, the role of a scenographer is to convince the public that what is happening is real. At PEARL, the role of the architects was to convince the real participants that what is happening is real. For this, the building had to take a step back and make room for experimentation. “It’s a non-space in which to build these environments,” Goodfellow explains.

[Image: courtesy Penoyre & Prasad]

As a result, most of the interior is clad in all-black materials, so the building can fade into the background, and the noise level and background reverberation are very low. For example, the HVAC system was designed so that a series of vents descend into the space and deliver heat directly to certain areas, helping to reduce air velocity (and noise) that would have would have been necessary if the vents had been higher.

[Photo: ©Timothy Soar/courtesy Penoyre & Prasad]

The absence of sound is at the heart of the research center’s first experience. In early February, PEARL launched a project with Transport for London and electric scooter operators Lime, Tier and Dott, to develop and test a universal warning sound, after several scooter collisions in the UK (electric cars have been facing similar challenges.)

[Photo: ©James Tye/courtesy Penoyre & Prasad]

Tyler explains that the sound of the scooter should be distinctive enough for everyone to hear, but quiet enough not to add to the pre-existing urban cacophony of sounds. To simulate a real scenario, his team will use real recordings of busy streets, which they can manipulate and distribute to the various speakers in the building to simulate a real street. Then the warning sound will be developed in the sound laboratory of the building. It’s too early to tell what it might sound like, but Tyler says it needs to have a wide frequency range so it can be heard by a variety of people. (And because a warning sound wouldn’t help a hearing-impaired pedestrian, the team is also investigating warning solutions.)

Once the sound is developed, the researchers will insert it into the soundscape for participants to test against traffic noise. To make it even more realistic, Tyler says they’re going to build a set that mimics a pedestrian plaza.

In many ways, the building is an ode to the senses. When we step out into the world, we use touch, smell, hearing, and even taste to interact with our environment, but most of the time the only sense architects design for is sight. “The only way to know the world is through your senses,” says Tyler. “To understand how we perceive the world, what we are looking for, we must be able to control the environment in each of these senses.”

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