Using tech to talk turkey during the project consultation process

Immersive technologies like virtual reality can be a powerful communications tool during public consultations on infrastructure projects, say Andy Thomas and Alex Southern.

Digital transformation in infrastructure is bringing an end to the days of public consultations in dusty town halls littered with maps and plans for new schemes. Immersive technologies can add impressive realism to the visualisations of future projects, which can be a powerful communication tool during public consultations to help people make more informed decisions about what is being proposed.   

With two-dimensional plans hard to interpret, it’s often a natural response for local communities to be sceptical about the impacts of big new projects. Visualisations and fly-throughs are now frequently used during public consultations as a way to help people understand the designs and impacts of proposals. 

While these visualisations are useful, they follow a pre-defined camera path. By using immersive technologies companies can go a step further, giving stakeholders an accurate glimpse of completed future projects. With virtual reality (VR), for example, it is possible to explore wherever you want to go. People can look at a proposed scheme from different angles, at different times of day and with many more types of interaction.   

Cable-free VR headsets work well for public use, providing an instant sense of scale that a 2D plan or 3D model on-screen cannot reproduce. When people see the whole picture and understand what is planned, it can increase the likelihood of them switching to support proposals.

The ability to allow stakeholders to explore what a finished station, road or high-speed rail route will look like using VR is an innovative way to explain the options and potential impacts of new schemes. But adding acoustic technology alongside visualisations can really bring a project to life. 

Sound demonstrations help people understand what planned infrastructure changes will sound like by listening to ‘without’ and ‘with’ comparisons. Concerns about noise levels can often contribute to public opposition for new infrastructure. This is partly because communicating changes to the acoustic environment, both increases and decreases, is notoriously difficult. 

Traditionally, noise maps are used to help explain the noise impacts of a proposed scheme. Geographical maps overlaid with different colours that indicate changes in decibel, sound maps are informative but also difficult to understand. 

Sound demonstrations combined with visualisations can simulate likely noise levels at exact locations, allowing stakeholders to both hear and see the impact of planned changes on familiar places. For a new road scheme, for example, it is possible to demonstrate how noisy traffic will sound after the introduction of new conditions such as noise barriers, quieter road surfaces or reduced speed limits. 

AECOM recently worked with Highways England to deliver sound demonstrations during the public consultation for the A303 Amesbury to Berwick Down improvement project past Stonehenge. The first time this technology was applied to a major UK road scheme as part of statutory consultation, this award-winning use of acoustic technology enabled Highways England to clearly communicate predicted noise levels for the scheme, leading the way for this type of approach to major infrastructure projects.  

Using immersive technologies to make the noise and visual impacts of infrastructure easier to understand can make proposals more accessible to a wider audience. Technologies can be selected according to the project brief, budget and likely demographic of stakeholders, giving users different levels of interaction and involvement. 

The innovative application of sound and VR can help allay fears about proposed infrastructure and efficiently communicate the facts about a project to stakeholders. But they can also inform the planning and design process, providing helpful resources of information as projects progress through the planning process. 

Given the importance of gaining public buy-in for major infrastructure projects, using technology can be a powerful way to engage with stakeholders and help dispel misunderstandings that can often exist about the likely impacts of a proposal. The approach is about communicating proposed changes transparently, making plans more accessible to a wider demographic. Using immersive technologies to deliver accurate visual and sound experiences is the way forward for public consultations. 

Andy Thomas is head of visualisation and VR – EMEA at AECOM and Alex Southern is AECOM’s  auralisation lead.