How does multisensory virtual experience impact environmental behaviour?

The project aims to understand how multisensory virtual experience impacts real environmental behaviours. It uses mixed and virtual reality, various measurements of behavioural change, real time pollution data visualisation, and economics to reach that goal.

Air pollution is a serious threat to public health. The main source of the problem are cars and heating habits. Using coal and trash for heating, as well as wood in a fireplace for pleasure, leads to exceeding quickly the daily norms of air pollution. Even though the harmfulness of air pollution and its relationships with our daily behaviour is commonly known, the problem persists. But what if we could see, touch, and hear pollution? Would that encourage us to change our behaviour and improve our health? Our team, using virtual reality and cooperating with local communities, will investigate how multisensory experience of air pollution influences the air quality in Poland and Norway.

The goal of the project

The project aims to understand how multisensory virtual experience impacts real environmental behaviours. Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated experience that can reflect the real world, but it can also enrich it with elements exceeding reality. We can experience VR through both head mounted displays and ordinary smartphones. The latter also allow to experience virtual environments in the form of augmented reality, where virtual elements are overlaid on the real world. For now, virtual environments provide mainly visual and auditory experience. Nevertheless, new multisensory solutions and products are being developed and implemented. Air pollution can be detected by our bodies only when it reached dangerously high level. But polluted air is dangerous for us much before we can smell and see it. The aim of the study is to investigate the influence of multisensory air pollution experience on actual human behaviour. In our analyses, we will take into consideration also economic and socio-cultural factors to understand better what influences the air quality in small Polish and Norwegian towns.

Description of research

VAPE is a transdisciplinary project in which we link a multisensory experience in VR, real-time air pollution measurement, economic and psychological analysis, and civil engagement. We plan to build a network of low-cost air quality sensors in selected cities in Poland and Norway. We will use the data recorded by us to build a multi-sensory virtual experience. We will observe how this VR experience will affect attitudes and readiness for pro-ecological behaviour among the residents of selected towns. Moreover, we will involve local community and artists in creating these experiences. In laboratory experiments, we will test how multisensory virtual experience of air pollution affects us on a neuronal, physiological, and behavioural level to further increase the effectiveness of our field operations. Finally, we will use the economic theory of decision making and experimental economics to see how we can scale up the solution.

Substantial results expected

We expect that the basic benefit of the project will be a change in behavior and increased social engagement in solving the problem of clean air. The scientific benefit lies mostly in the understanding of the mechanism behind this change, in particular the usefulness of multisensory VR and participatory activities. We hope to develop a solution that can be transferred to the scale of the country, Europe and the world.

Financed from the European Economic
Area Financial Mechanism

The project started in 2020 and will end in 2023 and it benefits from a 1 500 000 € grant. Programme operated by the National Science Centre under the EEA and Norway Grants and is prepared in cooperation with the Research Council of Norway.

One of the major atmospheric pollutants is particulate matter (PM), which is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is associated with lung cancer, premature mortality, cardiopulmonary diseases, and cardiovascular diseases and therefore routinely monitored to reduce the harm it causes. The monitoring is done using research grade instrumentation at a very high cost. Those high investment costs of running and maintaining monitoring sites hinder the ability to increase spatial coverage and maintain quality of air pollution data. As a potential alternative method for PM concentration measurement, low-cost PM sensors have been studied extensively in recent years.

Within the laboratory studies, we will mainly measure behavioural and psychophysiological reactions in immersive virtual environments. Thanks to precise measurement of e.g. eye tracking, heartbeat, electroencephalography (EEG), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) combined with high realism and control of virtual environments, we are able to perform tests that are impossible to perform using traditional testing methods.

The collected data will serve two main purposes. Firstly, they will help to better understand the perception of air pollution when it becomes accesible to various senses in a new way: by virtual touch, artistic visual and audio stimulation, new kinds of scents. Secondly, we will examine what kind of messages help to influence pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour in order to make clean air action more effective.

As part of the longitudinal studies (otherwise referred to as longitudinal), we will investigate the expected changes in attitudes and environmental behaviour in Polish Myszków and Norwegian Halden over a period of three years. The data will be collected twice a year – in spring and autumn. The questionnaire can be completed online or on paper and then sent by post.

Residents and residents of Myszków are invited to volunteer by completing the [Application Form].

An important part of the project are the participatory workshops, thanks to which the inhabitants and residents of selected towns will actively contribute to our project. The participatory design of an effective VR environment is an important part of the planned field activities, both on an individual and group level. In particular, based on the well-established Living Lab approach, we plan to involve part of the local community of Myszków and Halden to directly participate in the process of co-creating content and application forms for the reproduction of multisensory virtual environments.

What is the value of clean air? Air quality is a public experience good. Good air quality is a classic example of a public good – nobody can be excluded from its consumption. On the other hand, it is an experience good, people cannot say the value until the experience clean and polluted air. Sensitivity to air quality increases after feeling its sudden, unexpected change. Until then people tend to under-estimate their own valuation of this good. At the same time, lack of reliable monitoring and publicly available environmental information leads to biased beliefs about the level of pollution, and consequently unnecessary exposition to the unhealthy pollutants. The problem of pollution exposure disproportionately touches the poorest communities, leading to environmental inequality. In this complex system of connections between the environmental, social and economic conditions, there are no easy solutions.

In this project, we want to value the results, costs and benefits, of improved monitoring and access to information about air quality. Understanding the value and effects of providing such information is crucial for the optimal level of government investment in information gathering and reporting.