Thomas Z. Ramsøy

Bridging Realities: Architecture, Virtual Reality, and the Brain

How close to reality must a virtual environment be before the brain shows a similar response to real-life experiences? In a world where the tangible melds with the intangible, we recently embarked on a groundbreaking exploration into the intricate tapestry of human experience in architectural spaces, both real and virtual.

The work — a recent publication you can find here (PDF) — was a collaboration between Neurons and the Royal Danish Academy – Architecture, a harmonious convergence of art and science, aiming to unravel the emotional and cognitive resonance of architectural spaces in high-detail Virtual Reality (VR). This exploration is a continuation of my endeavors in VR and applied neuroscience, aiming to understand the emotional and cognitive resonance of architectural experiences in high-detail VR.

Crafting Virtual Worlds

We meticulously recreated architectural spaces in VR with varying levels of detail and used Electroencephalography (EEG) brain monitoring to measure participants’ neural responses as they navigated through these spaces. Our participants, architecture students, were the explorers of these recreated spaces, interpreting and experiencing them, providing insights into the emotional and cognitive resonance of these spaces.

Participants were exposed to three types of VR experiences:

  • High-detail VR environment: An immersive, meticulously crafted virtual world where every element is rendered with precision, replicating the richness and complexity of real-world architectural spaces and providing a sensory-rich experience.
  • Low-detail VR environment: A simplified, abstract representation of architectural spaces with minimal detail and complexity, focusing on basic shapes and structures and offering a contrasting, essentialized experience of space.
  • Laser scanning environment: Utilizes laser technology to create detailed and accurate representations of real-world spaces, emphasizing high precision and complexity and offering a cognitively rich, immersive experience.
A diagram showing the participant experience and study design.

Insights into Reality

Our findings indicated that experiences in high-detail VR models were comparable to real-life spaces in terms of emotional and cognitive responses.

However, the journey through low-detail VR was less satisfying and more physically straining for participants, while laser scanning was cognitively overwhelming due to its complexity.

Examples of the three types of virtual reality environments: (A) Hig-res, (B) Low-res, (C) Laser scanning

This exploration illuminated the potential of VR as a revolutionary tool for architects, allowing for more precise conceptualization and realization of architectural visions. It provides insights into how architects can create spaces that resonate with our minds and emotions, enhancing our overall experience of the built environment.

Different environments produce different levels of cognitive demand in virtual environments.

Beyond Exploration in Virtual Reality

This journey is not just about understanding the intricate relationship between the mind and architectural spaces but also about contributing to the evolving symphony of architecture, neuroscience, and technology. It’s about exploring the realms of reality and virtuality, about being architects of our own experiences, and composers of our own symphonies.

As we continue this exploration, we aim to delve deeper into the intricate relationship between the mind and architectural spaces, contributing to the evolving symphony of architecture, neuroscience, and technology. It’s a step towards a future where VR serves as a bridge between the tangible and the intangible, expanding the horizons of architectural design and experience.

In this exploration, architects are the weavers of experiences, the creators of spaces that encapsulate our minds, memories, desires, and dreams. They are the composers of symphonies that elevate our experience of ourselves and radiate existential wisdom. And as we navigate this technological and intellectual paradigm shift, we must ensure that Virtual Reality remains a tool in the hands of creative individuals rather than a replacement for them. The best version of our future is one where VR and humans amplify each other’s strengths, helping our civilization flourish like never before.