The research leading to these results has received funding from the EEA Financial Mechanism 2014-2021 (#2019/35/J/HS6/03166). The project budget was 1 492 406 €.
The VAPE project focused on understanding how multisensory virtual experience impacts real environmental behaviors. It used mixed and virtual reality, various measurements of behavioral change, real-time pollution data visualization, and economics to reach that goal. Therefore, the project consisted of five pillars: air pollution measurement, economic analyses, participatory workshops, laboratory studies, and field studies, whose findings complemented each other to deliver a transdisciplinary and comprehensive view on behavioral change mechanisms in relation to air pollution from households, in particular home heating and water heating.
To ensure that project’s objectives would be met, the densest network of low-cost PM air pollution sensors in the world was established in Myszków, Poland and Halden, Norway with 100 and 50 sensors respectively. In addition to the establishment of the sensor network we built the first version of a method for automatic data-correction of readings from low cost sensors to provide more accurate results. The sensor network was paired with building a panel of households which agreed to participate in surveys, tests and field research application studies. At the same time we pioneered the use of the real-time sensor data from the densest air quality sensors in Europe for gamification of a pro-environmental mobile research application.
The Norwegian Institute for Air Research was responsible for deploying an air quality sensor network faced some major obstacles to deliver the sensor network, due to the pandemic and the travel restriction. This obstacle was overcome by involving Airly into the project for the Norwegian and Polish sensor network. The sensor system from Airly has been tested in projects before and was considered to be the best solution for the given purpose of the project.
Economic analyses shed light on the behavioral and economic effects of air pollution disclosure. Preliminary conclusions indicate that the value of timely information on air quality (health benefits related to reduced exposure, combined with willingness to pay for information) can exceed the costs of establishing the air quality monitoring system.
For lab experiments a novel multisensory Immersive Virtual Reality environment was designed and developed. This environment made it possible to conduct lab experiments in the conditions of ecological validity, while at the same time verifying their qualitative findings through numerous psychophysiological measures. Participants were exposed to various representations of air pollution visualizations, developed in the pilot study.
They could self-regulate their level of stimulation by choosing the strength and duration of the exposure. The results suggest that the experimental setup and the virtual experience were positively perceived by the participants. The behaviors of the participants can be seen as implicit but robust dependent variables, shedding light on spontaneous reactions to stimuli that would not be observable in another experimental setup. The collected data suggest high usefulness of such studies for better measurement of psychological and sociological interventions on the general population. In addition, we opened new research paths in both correlational and experimental studies on environmental attitudes and behaviors. On the basis of the lab VR research app we have built a prototype of an augmented reality app. It has been tested during dissemination events with participation of potential end-users. It is a light standalone version of the visual air pollution representation, as tested in VR, but prepared to run on any contemporary smartphone. It uses a 3D model of lungs as a trigger, so scanning it with one’s phone enables a see-through visualization of pollution.
Participatory workshops, in-depth ethnographic research and citizen engagement activities were conducted in Myszków to discover the causes of citizens’ non-ecological behaviors and evaluate the awareness of environmental issues in their local context. As a result a gamified research application that makes use of air quality data from the dense network of local air pollution sensors was developed. The application acts as an environmental intervention by reinforcing users’ pro-environmental habits and offering pro-environmental educational content, and at the same time it constitutes a research tool on smog-causing behaviors which can be used in field studies.
Citizen engagement activities were conducted by municipality of Halden to foster awareness of environmental issues related to residential wood combustion. These activities resulted in having 37 volunteers to host air pollution sensors in their home. The sensor data by the volunteers and the national air quality forecast model were then used to provide air quality information to the citizens on a dedicated website. The citizens could see their own sensor and the overall air quality situation in the municipality.
Several meetings have been conducted with Halden municipality in order to find a common ground for a fruitful research collaboration. The municipality was very engaged before the pandemic in environmental issues and had a similar size then the selected polish municipality. Good plans were in place for participatory workshops and citizens engagement, but due to early determination of the project those plans never came into action.
All of these findings serve to understand how to achieve a change in behavior and increased social engagement in solving the problem of air pollution. The scientific value of the outputs lies in the understanding of the mechanism behind this change, in particular the usefulness of multisensory VR and participatory activities. The project constitutes the first steps in the development of a solution that could be transferred to the scale of the country, Europe and the world.