VR vibration simulators set up to study effects of working in a skyscraper

Virtual-reality vibration simulators that can replicate the experience of working in a high-rise office block, walking across a wobbly bridge or dancing in a crowded stadium will help scientists understand the implications for human health.

The joint project from Bath and Exeter universities is looking at how working in skyscrapers, which can be prone to subtle swaying due to strong winds at higher elevations, could affect health and well being.

Researchers will examine how working in tall buildings could cause different forms of motion sickness and leave employees with low mood, difficulty concentrating and a lack of motivation.

A team of engineers, medics, physiologists and psychologists will also look at the impact of vibrations in offices, football stadiums and rock concert venues, as well as when caused by crowds simultaneously exiting a stadium and walking across wobbly bridges.

The simulators will also recreate the surroundings, temperature, humidity, noise, air quality and smells of buildings.

Alex Pavic, professor of vibration engineering at the University of Exeter, said: “More and more people are living and working in high-rises and office blocks but the true impact of vibrations on them is currently very poorly understood and can differ depending on whether an environment is quiet or noisy, the time of the day and even whether people are moving, standing, running or walking.

“Humans spend 90 per cent of their lives in buildings which vibrate non-stop, but there is still very little reliable information about the effect of structural vibration.”

In large urban areas like London it is anticipated that people will increasingly work at higher elevations. Last November it was confirmed that a 300m-high skyscraper, just 5m shorter than the Shard, will be built next to the buildings dubbed the Gherkin and the Cheese-Grater. Currently, there are more than 430 buildings of 20 storeys or more in the pipeline in London. 

Dr Antony Darby, head of civil engineering at the University of Bath, said: “Just like sea sickness, our propensity to motion induced discomfort is situation and environment dependent. For example, people at a concert in a grandstand will accept completely different level of vibration than those in a hospital operating theatre.

“We now have the ability to simulate not only the structural motion, but the surroundings, temperature, noise, air quality, even smell, all of which contribute to our experience of, and tolerance to, building motion.”

Dr Vicki Goodwin of the University of Exeter said the research could also help to create environments for people with conditions such as dementia.

She said: “This new world-class facility will help us better understand how people move. This will help us to create supportive environments, for example for people with dementia.

“It will also help us develop rehabilitation programmes, including those using technology, to improve movement and ultimately well being.”

Over five years Bath and Exeter universities will inject £2.45m into the project, with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council contributing a further £4.8m to create the vibration simulators.

Architects are also increasingly experimenting with wooden skyscrapers due to their reduced carbon footprint and shorter construction times. A 52.8m apartment block - dubbed 'The Tree' - was recently constructed in Norway and is currently the tallest wooden structure in the world. 

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