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The Palimpsest: Changing cities with virtual reality

The Palimpsest: Changing cities with virtual reality

High Speed 2 (HS2) will be the UK’s second high-speed rail line if it is built. In the first phase of construction, the line would connect London to Birmingham. In later phases, it would extend to Leeds, Manchester, and possibly Scotland. The project is managed by the private company High Speed Two Limited (HS2 Ltd) and funded by grant-in-aid from the UK government (HM Government 2016). Due to the significant public investment required, the project has been the center of controversy. Supporters cite the need for more train capacity and to update rail infrastructure, and believe HS2 has the potential to spread economic growth to cities outside of London (BBC 2014; BBC Newsnight 2014). Opponents say the £50 billion+ price tag is too high, especially given the detrimental anticipated impact on housing and on the environment; that growth will be sucked into London rather than spread out; and that technology like driver-less cars and holographic conferencing will reduce the need for business travel (Stop HS2 2016a; BBC 2014). In March 2016, the hybrid bill for the first phase of the scheme was passed in its third and final hearing in the House of Commons with 399 to 42 in favor (McLoughlin 2016), and construction is expected to begin in 2017 after the bill is examined and passed by the House of Lords (Walker 2016).

A promotional video from HS2 Ltd making their case for the rail. Available:

Video showing protesters at the opening of the HS2 Community Engagement Centre on Hampstead Road. Available:

In addition to questions of if or why the project should advance, HS2 Ltd has been scrutinized for how it has advanced the agenda of the project, particularly with regards to its community engagement. Both the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman (PHSO) and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published reports that found a ‘culture of defensive communication and misinformation’ (PACAC 2016, 3). In his review of community engagement practices, former Independent Police Complaints Commissioner Ian Bynoe says there are clear examples of maladministration:

The Residents experienced administrative delay, prevarication, and a lack of candour about what the Company was willing or able to do and when. They encountered an unreasonable and unjustified defensiveness when they complained that the standard of response they were getting and its timeliness were unacceptable. (Bynoe 2016, 31)

Bynoe goes on to criticize the fact that a community engagement team was not adequately staffed until four years after HS2 was announced in Parliament. The findings of these reports are echoed by grievances of communities and their representative MPs. In one address to Parliament, MP Dan Byles explained that, even though he supports constructive engagement with the project as a whole, he opposes the bill solely on the grounds of its compensation and community engagement practices (Byles 2014).

MP Dan Byles speaking about HS2 in Parliament, April 2014. Available:

Community engagement policies for HS2 appear to exclude people from discussing the project, sometimes through conflicting rationales. In one case, the concept of ‘Not in my back yard’ (NIMBY) seems to motivate HS2 Ltd’s decision of who to include and exclude in the route consultation process. NIMBYism assumes that people in closer proximity to an urban development project harbor negative opinions toward it because of how it impacts them personally. This assumption leads organizations to disregard local opposition to projects as selfish or uninformed (Cotton and Devine-Wright 2010). In an internal report on their community engagement process for Phase Two of the project, HS2 Ltd explains that ‘in view of the significant blight risk we did not hold discussions with local authorities…in delineating the line of the route. Instead, we carried out internal technical working groups’ (HS2 Ltd 2012, 2). More recently, however, it seems that HS2 has moved to only include locally impacted people in parliamentary debates. In what journalist Johnathan Walker describes as a ‘bizarre’ ruling, the Department for Transport (DoT)—which invests government funds in HS2 Ltd—requested that MPs who are not personally directly affected by the project be barred from the House of Lords oversight hearings (Walker 2016). As a result, MPs like Caroline Spelman and Nick Hurd, whose constituencies are traversed by the rail and include people whose homes and businesses are directly impacted, will be barred because the rail does not pass by their own homes. In response to objections, ‘the Government claims that simply being the MP for a constituency affected by the route is not enough to demonstrate a “direct and special” interest in it’ (Gilligan 2016). However, HS2 Ltd’s assumptions those directly impacted (or their representatives) are biased NIMBYists may not be supported by outcomes in other urban development projects. In fact, Cotton and Devine-Write (2010) provide evidence that proximity does not necessarily correlate with opposition to the project: in one case people who lived near an electrical infrastructure project largely supported the scheme despite it requiring portions of their property. Furthermore, they show that excluding people from the planning process can lead to a ‘lack of trust’ (ibid.). Regardless of why the DoT moved to exclude representatives of directly impacted people, decisions that result in communities not being represented in debates have been interpreted as an attempt to streamline the passage of the bill.

In addition to the explicit exclusion of individuals from the HS2 planning process, the HS2 campaign also provides insufficient information to allow for full community engagement with the plans. Official media relating to the UK’s new High Speed Rail Two project (HS2) demonstrates a notable discrepancy in the level of resolution of different types of information in the project. Specifically, highlights of the project, such as the station terminals or exterior views of new flats, are rendered in photo-real resolution. In the rendering of the new Mercury-class trains, one can even read ‘Chateau Hamilton’ on a bottle of wine dutifully modeled in 3D. In contrast, there is little to no record of less desirable dimensions of the project: there are no renderings of what parks that are converted into equipment and material storage lots will look like during the 25 years of construction; no images of proposed improvements to public spaces along the line. An animation by ARUP showing the train passing through empty farmlands demonstrates the level of noise the trains are expected to produce. However, there are no publicly available audio simulations of construction noise or of trains passing by from inside a home, as they would be experienced by those affected by the project. A brief, if only speculative, analysis of why these renderings do not exist highlights both the difficulty of these large-scale projects as well as the conflicting message being marketed by HS2 Ltd.

The photo-real rendering of the Mercury train by Priestman Goode. Available:

Grimshaw Architects 2015 Design for the new entrance to Euston station

Rendering of Euston Station proposal by Grimshaw Architects. Available:

First, the photo-real renderings exist to sell a product and, in many cases, are not produced by HS2 Ltd directly, but by companies providing them services. In the case of the Mercury train, the company is likely competing for the contract to provide trains for the project. The same is true for the apartment unit renderings, which are provided by an architectural firm as part of their contract. The higher degree of detail provided, the more likely a firm is to win a contract, thus creating an incentive to render ideas with a high degree of finish and realism.

However, there is a subtle balance when it comes to producing renderings for clients or the public. Architecture visualizer Peter Guthrie explains that the architects he works with are ‘deliberately hesitant about showing too much detail as it can make planners or clients question how much scope there is for making changes’ (Bryant, 2013b). In other words, showing too much detail might imply that there is little room for changes, while showing vague renderings suggests that significant changes are possible. Another visualizer and architect, Henry Goss, warns of the risk of renderings being better than the final project, which ends up generating frustration on the part of the clients (Bryant, 2013a). In this context, it could be that HS2 is aware of risk of generating renderings that it may not be able to fully deliver. For example, detailed renderings of improvements to public spaces could become symbols of deceit should those projects be cut later in the budget.

However, this implies that renderings are only made of project components that a company is confident they can deliver. In an interview with the BBC, chairman of HS2 Sir David Higgins insisted that the project is ‘nothing about trains, it’s all about people’, asserting that the economic boost from the project and the expansion of growth outside London is the impetus for the project (BBC Newsnight, 2014). If this sentiment is true, then the improvements to playgrounds, gardens, squares, roads, homes, and natural habitats along the route of the project should be of equal, if not more importance than the trains and the stations. This begs the question of why the train and the stations, and not the improvements to public space, are the highlight of their campaign. If these knock-on benefits are not rendered because there is a worry that they might not be delivered true to the renderings or to the promised extent, then it would seem that the project is about trains.

camden map

Image provided by HS2 demonstrating the potential negative impacts of construction. Note the difference in rendering styles for positive dimensions (photo-real renderings) and negative dimensions (technical drawings) for the project. Available:

Further absent from any concrete form of visualization available to the public are the existing conditions in the areas that will be affected by HS2. To our knowledge, no comprehensive effort to document the current conditions, physical or social, are publicly available. While HS2 has undoubtedly carried out investigations to determine which properties would be impacted by the project for the purposes of compensation, these documents appear to be available in text based documents or cross-hatched maps. The limited availability of documentation could cause oversights when it comes to sensitive or high-risk communities, especially because members of the public do not have the opportunity to question or verify if the information is accurate. For example, the prevalence of gangs with established territories in Camden Borough could result in friction if youth outreach venues like the Silverdale Motorcycle Club or the Old Tenant’s Hall are moved from neutral gang territory to disputed or claimed parts of the borough (Topping 2011). By providing access to this information or even collaborating with community members to map existing conditions, HS2 could take advantage of local knowledge to make informed decisions regarding compensation and reconstruction (Yearley et al. 2003; Rydin et al. 2012).

It is difficult to untangle frustration with the lack of meaningful community engagement from disillusionment with the project as a whole. If the entire project is seen as unnecessary or wasteful, no amount of community engagement will rectify damages resulting from the project.That being said, the antagonistic relationship observed between HS2 and affected communities thus far in the project provides an opportunity to interrogate the purpose of community engagement, existing weaknesses in community engagement processes, and missed opportunities for collaboration and inclusion of the community in the planning process.

Using the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2)project in the UK as a case study, this article analyzes the need for more inclusive community engagement in urban development projects. Virtual reality is examined as a more inclusive medium for architectural representation, as research has shown that it is more readily comprehended by non-designers. Furthermore, the advent of low-cost virtual reality equipment like Google Cardboard and Project Tango have made it a viable technology for participatory design schemes. A design research project based on the concept of a digital palimpsest is used to investigate how stakeholders in the HS2 project can communicate needs, solutions, and facilitate debate in a participatory design process. My research suggests that virtual reality can become a tool for inclusive community engagement if the strategy is designed to be intuitive and accessible.

Furthermore, I will argue for participatory urban development planning on ethical grounds rooted in notions of citizenship and appropriate compensation, as well as in pragmatic grounds for harnessing local knowledge and support. I will present evidence for participatory design and co-production as a method for introducing legitimacy and creativity into projects.

2 Inclusive Engagement

Many protesters express fear of losing their homes and communities as a result of the HS2 project. Descriptions of loss extend beyond monetary concerns, with individuals emphasizing the memories, relationships, and social bonds with neighbors that they will lose (Stop HS2 2016b, Byles 2014). During a panel discussion on participatory design, architect Ashvin de Vos (de Vos 2016) explained that people who are losing their homes or communities often need a ‘period of mourning’ that the pace of development cannot provide. The term ‘mourning’ suggests that concept of home encompasses more than property (see also Taylor 2013) ; Wolff and De-Shalit (2007) explain that people displaced from their homes (in this case, by a chemical spill) ‘suffer profound feelings of dislocation (literally); the loss of a sense of place, which impacts upon their self identity’ (2007, 26). Later, they explain that a slum clearance and relocation program, while improving the physical conditions of housing, ‘created a new problem of social isolation and breakdown in social networks which had many further costs’ (2007, 178). In these instances, the loss to individuals as well as to the community ‘cannot be removed or ‘compensated’ by cash transfers. What [people] need is for their original home to be cleaned up, restored…or the closest possible substitute’ [emphasis mine] (2007, 26).


Diagram based on Wolff and De-Shalit’s writings on disadvantage.

It appears that HS2 Ltd is attempting to address these community concerns through various forms of compensation. In response to petition hearings in Camden council, for example, HS2 offered the following concessions, among others: to establish a Euston Station Design panel of community leaders to approve design decisions for the station; to require local planning authority approval if there are ever more than 24 trips by large vehicles in one day; to establish a Business and Local Economy Fund for businesses that will be impacted by the project; to plant a tree for every one that is lost or hold a meeting for a suitable alternative if there is not enough space to do so; and to add double glazing to facades which face construction sites in order to mitigate construction noise (Hargreaves 2015). Additionally, there are a range of schemes for blighted properties, including schemes for renting a blighted home, selling it to the government, or receiving a cash payment (HM Government 2016).

The extensive range of compensation shows that HS2 Ltd is attempting to compensate those impacted by the project. However, these concessions fall short due to their focus on material improvements or the equivalent market value in monetary compensation. As mentioned earlier, the loss of a sense of home for individuals and of a network of solidarity for communities cannot be resolved by a lump sum payment or by new windows. Furthermore, as Wolff and De-Shalit explain, individuals make claims of injustice not only for themselves, but also on behalf of all who are similarly impacted. By paying off only those individuals who manage the bureaucratic process to file a complaint, especially when many of the damages cannot be fully remedied by cash transfers or material improvements, such compensation may actually result in the real claim of injustice being ‘missed or even in some way corrupted by the attempt to pay cash’ (2007, 29). In this sense, petitions by citizens whose neighborhoods will be disrupted by the HS2 are made but to protect the community from social damages as well as material damages, and these claims cannot be fully addressed by monetary or material compensation. As a result, Wolff and De-Shalit warn against mischaracterizing the citizen as ‘a recipient, as a passive, self-centered claimant’ advocating instead for a shift ‘to a more comprehensive and diverse view of the person, who is also sensitive to others and who is a giver’ (2007, 45). To achieve this requires an opportunity for community members to act in solidarity. It also requires that community claims be genuinely considered, not just placated or compensated.

Community engagement is considered by many to be an essential dimension of any project that places a burden on a community (Bengston, Fletcher, and Nelson 2004). In the context of HS2, the burden for most UK citizens is the use of their tax payments. For those who live near the proposed route, the burden is higher, ranging from losing a home to enduring construction and traffic noise pollution. These burdens contribute to environmental and social instability, which has been shown to detrimentally impact the physical and mental health of individuals (Wolff and De-Shalit 2007; Marmot 2015). Yvonne Rydin et al. (2012) propose community engagement as a method of counteracting these potential harms and promoting health in urban communities. In their assessment, they identify three primary dimensions of urban planning projects in order to promote health. The first dimension is the promotion of experimentation, especially with projects that are sensitive to local circumstances and that are managed by local communities. Second, they emphasize learning from projects, particularly through dialogue, deliberation, and discussion between key stakeholders. Finally, they suggest having a public platform for the debate of policy interventions, given the value-laden nature of their impact and the ethical and moral dimensions of how the projects impact communities.

HS2 Ltd is falling short of community engagement by limiting their focus to direct monetary compensation instead of addressing the social and emotional needs of impacted communities. Instead, research shows that participatory design that gives communities a voice can address social needs.

3 Accessibility

There is a need for a collaborative, accessible, and intuitive process to facilitate coordination between the government, corporate bodies, and communities. To achieve this, it is necessary to examine how participatory planning strategies can be made accessible to ensure that process is inclusive. This is especially important given the history of exclusionary planning processes in the UK (Thomas and Krishnarayan 1994; Davoudi and Atkinson 1999). The following section will assess the accessibility of community engagement documentation from HS2, and suggest virtual reality as an alternative medium for architectural representations.

The HS2 project has an immense amount of paperwork available to the public. As of 18 July 2016, over 700 documents are available for download, ranging from a few pages each to over 30 (HM Government 2016). However, Ian Bynoe (2016) found that the website hosting the documents was ‘difficult to navigate and was text and document heavy’ (2016, 22). Research suggests that text heavy processes for participatory planning systematically disadvantage people with poor English reading or writing skills (Thomas and Krishnarayan 1994), and that internet-based political participation is exclusionary to older people and to people from lower socioeconomic groups (Di Gennaro and Dutton 2006). In Camden Borough, an equality check conducted by HS2 Ltd revealed that minority ethnic groups and the elderly are disproportionately impacted by construction in the area (HS2 Ltd 2015a). In order to make community engagement equitable, allowing it to be accessible for those who will be most affected by the HS2 project, the medium and graphical interface for engagement must be deliberately chosen for its accessibility. Alternatives to the existing media could include audio recordings, such as a podcast or radio broadcast, or short explanatory videos.

HS2 Ltd 2016 Screenshot from HS2 website

Screenshot showing the HS2 website that was deemed difficult to navigate by an independent investigator. Available:

HS2 Ltd also provides access to drawings and plans. Most of the visual information available takes the form of technical drawings by urban designers and architects. Recent studies have shown that people have different aptitudes for interpreting abstract representations of architecture and urban design, such as plans, sections, or perspective renderings (Wergles and Muhar 2009). Given that the majority of people impacted by an urban design project are not architects, a truly participatory design process should embrace visual mediums and representations that are accessible to non-designers. A growing body of literature suggests that VR has the potential to become a ‘common representational medium’ for architectural representation which is accessible to both professional designers and laypeople alike (Rahimian, Ibrahim, and Baharudin 2008; Roupé 2012; Schnabel et al. 2008). This is in part due to the fact that spatial cues and technology used to produce VR experiences mimic the way human senses perceive physical objects and environments, such as stereo vision and binaural sound (Cummings, Bailenson, and Fidler 2015). As technology and content improves, researchers are finding that VR experiences generate feelings of ‘presence’, or the sensation of ‘being there’ when people are experiencing media (Bailey et al. 2011, 1). By sharing a VR experience of proposed design schemes, designers and laypeople can be more confident that they are referencing the same notion of a proposal than if both were interpreting drawings and referencing constructed mental images. In the context of participatory design, VR allows planners and laypeople to comprehend and assess spatial proposals on more equal terms.

That being said, there exist several issues related to accessibility and virtual reality technologies. The first has to do with technical proficiency. While viewing a VR experience managed by facilitators is straightforward (Oh et al. 2016), the same technological disadvantage found by di Gennaro and Dutton (2006) applies to experiencing VR content without the help of tech-savvy helpers; viewers would need a certain level of proficiency to find, download, and view content from home or on their own. Secondly, people with disabilities, such as blindness, deafness, epilepsy, or mobility issues, may not be able to fully engage with VR experiences (ibid.). Cost can also be a prohibitive dimension of VR experiences. Until recently, a passable quality of VR required powerful computers, expensive headsets, and longer periods for calibration and design (Cummings, Bailenson, and Fidler 2015). Even today, extremely high-fidelity VR experiences are likely to be prohibitively expensive for a community engagement scheme. Striking a balance between creating an immersive experience while managing budget and mobility needs is essential (Cummings, Bailenson, and Fidler 2015). Fortunately, recent advances have made immersive experiences possible on more affordable hardware. One promising example is Google Cardboard, which converts most commercially available smartphones into a VR headset using a folded cardboard casing and two plastic lenses. The plans and instructions for building the headset are available free of charge, and ready-made headsets can be purchased for as little as £10 (Google 2016a).

Another significant technological advance which makes affordable and mobile VR possible is Google’s Project Tango. Project Tango is a mobile device that is able to track its rotation in space, much like most smartphones, as well as its displacement (Google 2016b). This is often referred to as having ‘6 degrees of freedom’ (6DOF), meaning that 3 axes of rotation and 3 axes of displacement are tracked, enabling the user to move freely in any direction (Google 2016b; Wagner et al. 2010). Tracking displacement is especially important to create presence in VR experiences. In their research on immersion in VR, Cummings et al. (2015) found that the ‘effect of tracking level on user presence was found to be significantly larger than that of nearly all other immersive features’ (2015, 24). Traditionally, tracking is achieved by placing fixed sensors in a room to track body movement (Fox, Arena, and Bailenson 2009). Examples of hardware which use external sensors are the HTC Vive and the Occulus Rift, as well as many custom-made kits for research purposes. The significance of achieving 6DOF on mobile hardware is difficult to overstate: it allows VR and AR to be experienced in any setting, without any external equipment, with virtual content of any size, while enabling the user to move in any direction freely for any distance. What makes this technology especially applicable to participatory design initiatives is that it will be commercially available on smartphones beginning September 2016 (Google 2016b). In the context of community engagement, VR content that is inherently more comprehensible for non-designers could be downloaded and viewed by a normal consumer with minimal extra equipment.

Video demo of Google’s Project Tango, a mobile tablet that allows real-time 3D scanning and six degrees of freedom. Available:

In addition to mobile 6DOF, Project Tango devices have the capacity to capture 3D models of objects and spaces. Using the application Tango Constructor, point the tablet at objects and walls while the application constructs a 3D model from the sensors. The resulting model can be exported and manipulated in 3D modeling software (Google 2016c). While most examples are of rooms, ostensibly for the purposes of creating AR experiences in one’s home (ibid.), my research team, Haavard Tveito and Takashi Torisu, and I used Tango Constructor to capture models of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England; La Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain; a forest path in Senumstad, Norway; and a portion of the Medina in Fez, Morocco. The process for capturing models is intuitive, fast, and produces an acceptable, though somewhat abstracted level of detail. If the upcoming release is successful, it is reasonable to assume that millions of people will be carrying portable 3D scanners with them in the next 3 years. As such, it has the potential to be a valuable tool for participatory design strategies—average citizens will have the capacity to scan spaces and use them to preserve a memory of a home that will be lost or to test them against specifications promised by the government.

My team collaborated on several projects exploring potential applications of Project Tango in architecture. For instance, the team made binaural recordings while inside King’s College Chapel, and used Unity game engine software to place the recordings inside the model produced by the Tango. When the program was loaded back onto the Tango, the entire chapel was generated at scale and ‘placed’ in front of the user. As participants walked forward through the corridors of the Bartlett School of Architecture, they could see and hear the virtual representation of the chapel at a 1:1 scale through the screen of the Tango. In other words, because the Tango can track its position accurately, one step in the real world can be translated into one step in the virtual world, allowing the viewer to ‘walk’ through a virtual space using their body. The experience was particularly interesting when the real and the virtual architecture diverged: by walking up stairs in the real building, the users moved vertically through the chapel until they were floating several floors above the altar in the virtual space.
In keeping with mindset of producing an accessible VR experience, we wanted to convert the Project Tango tablet into a VR headset. Seeing as the device was not commercially available at the time of research, the team designed a cardboard headset that enabled a Google Cardboard headset to be fitted against the screen of the Tango. Particular care was given to the design to make sure the Google Cardboard was removable. This enabled an investment in a Google Cardboard to function with both smartphones and the Project Tango tablet without damaging either headset. While this has limited applications given that the commercial product will have different dimensions than the developer kit hardware, it represents a design philosophy of maximizing the utility of all resources invested into the project.

Chapel Transplant was a design experiment that reconstructed a scan of King’s College Chapel inside of the Bartlett School of Architecture in London and allowed people to explore it at a 1:1 scale. Video credit: J Russell Beaumont, Haavard Tveito, and Takashi Torisu.

The team created a headset that allows a Google Cardboard to be used with a Project Tango in order to create VR experiences. Video credit: J Russell Beaumont, Haavard Tveito, and Takashi Torisu.

Using this headset, we produced an AR experience for the Roundhouse venue in London called Traces of Reality. Traces of Reality explored the merging of virtual and real content in a highly abstracted experience. The Roundhouse building has a diverse history (Roundhouse Trust 2016). It was originally used as a train engine repair station; engines would enter the building and rotate on a circular platform to enter a repair bay. In 1860s, just 20 years after it opened, train engines became too long for the platform. It was acquired by Gibley’s Gin and used as a storage house for over 90 years. After shifting ownership a few more times, it finally became a music and theater venue in the 1960s. Taking cues from this history, the virtual experience begins in a sphere filled with vinyl records, clouds, flowers, and a violin rendered in a 1960s concert poster style. A funk-rock song written by a member of the design team alludes to the music of the era, but slowly distorts and fades as the objects around the viewer grow and begin to spin increasingly fast. Eventually, the whirlwind of points slows down and reassembles as constellations that resemble stacks of gin barrels. 3D spatial audio of factory worker sounds echo through the space. When the viewer collides with a barrel, they emit a thump and float weightlessly through the air. After some time, the viewer can hear a train approaching from the distance. The train bursts into the space, colliding with barrels and filling the space with smoke. The train rotates on a virtual representation of the original Roundhouse platform before passing through the visitor and trailing off into the distance. Text appears signifying the end of the experience.

Video of visitors viewing the Traces of Reality project for the We Are Now festival in the Roundhouse, London. Original music by Haavard Tveito. Image credit: J Russell Beaumont, Haavard Tveito, and Takashi Torisu.

From a design research standpoint, Traces of Reality had two primary objectives. The first was to explore strategies for merging real-time sensing of the participants’ surroundings with virtual content. The second was to enable participants to experience the space socially through two networked headsets.

In order to make the experience intuitive and navigable, it was necessary overlay important information about the immediate physical context without distracting from or obscuring views of the virtual content. A precedent for achieving this is the HTC Vive, a commercially available VR headset mentioned earlier that allows the user to move freely within the view of two sensors. When users approach the edge of the designated sensing area, a transparent grid flashes to show them where the edge of the sensing area is located (Robertson 2016). While this method works well if the movement of the user is constrained, the strength of Project Tango is that the user can theoretically move anywhere. The solution developed was to feed the 3D model generated by Tango Constructor into the virtual world as the user walked around. In order to prevent the 3D Constructor model from obscuring views, it was rendered with a semi-transparent wireframe texture. The result was generally successful, as people were able to slowly navigate the foyer through crowds of people, and on occasion even left the venue to walk in affronting plaza. More significantly, the installation was the first VR experience for many visitors. Though dizziness is a common symptom of even brief VR experiences, no visitors reported feeling dizzy. We believe this is due to the fact that 6DOF enables the visual perception in the headset to more accurately sync with sensations from the vestibular system (the inner ear), therefore avoiding the jarring disassociation between sight and sense of balance (Sra and Schmandt 2015).


Two people in a ‘social’ VR environment, experiencing a virtual space together using networking software. Image credit: J Russell Beaumont, Haavard Tveito, and Takashi Torisu

In order to make the experience social, we retrofitted free networking software to our program and linked two Project Tango headsets together (see Torisu 2016). One consideration for the networked experience was how to render the other participant’s body. We wanted the co-participants to stand out from other people in the space, but we did not want to rely on external sensors for body tracking (thereby creating a constrained area for the experience). A temporary solution involved attaching a ready-made avatar from the Unity game engine to the coordinates of the other Tango. The avatar would mimic a smooth walking animation as the headset was displaced, but this movement did not exactly correspond to the movements of the participants. There is a known gap in current technology for real-time, mobile, and accurate body tracking. Currently, solutions utilize sensors placed at joints or using several infrared cameras to generate a model in real-time (Sra and Schmandt 2015). Traces of Reality offers a passable alternative which generates a social VR experience, but further research is needed for mobile body-tracking to create a high degree of presence.

4 Palimpsest

A palimpsest refers to ‘a manuscript written over a partly erased older manuscript in such a way that the old words can be read beneath the new’ (Azimzadeh and Bjur 2007, 2) . Originally a response to the high-cost of paper, palimpsests have become fascinating historical documents which contain hidden records of changing thought. In architecture, the term is used to describe the layered architectural and urban morphologies that coalesce over time (2007, 2). Given that a palimpsest displays different ideas simultaneously, the concept could lend itself to a strategy for community engagement; as a communal document, participants could add layers of information and collaborate to edit the primary document, while past iterations fade but remain legible. The strength of the palimpsest is its constant state of change as a surface ‘on which history inscribes itself as a process of addition, amendment, and perpetual alteration’ (Crang 1996, 430). The dynamic nature of the surface of the palimpsest invites editing and experimentation, whereas formal planning documents do not.

Mike paro 2015 palimpsest

Examples of palimpsests. Top: The Codex Ephraemi, containing bible texts that have been washed and rewritten in different languages. Bottom: An architectural palimpsest showing the rooms of a building that was demolished.  Sources, in order:  <> <> 

The proliferation of digital technologies have made new forms of palimpsests possible. Almost all word-processing programs contain a temporary palimpsest of sorts (by pressing Ctrl + Z repeatedly, recent iterations of a document are revealed). In a more deliberate sense, the cloud-based application GitHub allows people to simultaneously edit a document while keeping a record of the changes each individual makes (GitHub 2016). The file for a project, typically code, is hosted on a cloud server. Collaborators can make edits to the code, with one caveat: only the project owner can ‘commit’ these changes. If the contributor is not an owner, their modifications are stored in a ‘branch’, or a personal copy of the code. The contributor can request that the owner ‘pull’ their changes into the master document, which prompts the owners to verify if the modifications (Dabbish et al. 2012). Interestingly, every branch on a document is stored indefinitely by default, resulting in a complete history of changes throughout the document’s development. This history function is at its core a safeguarding functionality; if at any point the document becomes corrupted, the users can revert back to the most recent functioning version. However, the branches act as relics of alternative visions for the code that accumulate as different contributors participate in its creation.

Driessen 2010 Git example

A modern ‘digital’ palimpsest showing the workflow made possible with GitHub, a program for collaborating on documents. Available:

Dabbish et al. (2012) also describe an interesting social phenomenon which occurs as branches are merged into the master document. When a contribution has the potential to negatively impact other aspects of the project, the decision to commit the changes often results in discussion. The collaborators, who may be strangers, discuss ‘unobservable information about their rationale (why they were doing what they were doing), and plans (what they were planning to do next), and negotiate mutually compatible solutions to conflict’ (2012, 9).

The model employed by GitHub is not only a popular and effective way for people to collaborate on projects; researchers have started using GitHub to understand collaborative workflows by examining the comments, ‘dead’ branches, and final documents embedded in the digital palimpsests it creates (Dabbish et al. 2012; Thung et al. 2013; Begel, Bosch, and Storey 2013). The structure of the application serves as a precedent that informs how participatory design projects could be managed.

4.1 Camden Palimpsest

A Camden Palimpsest will be posited as a participatory design interface for the stakeholders involved in the HS2 project. The palimpsest will provide accessible information to the public to empower them to actively engage with plans, make their needs known, and critique solutions. This would allow for a more successful engagement of the community, and possibly reduce the material and social burdens placed on them by the HS2 project. Importantly, it is a collaborative tool, meaning there are benefits for all stakeholders: it will allow the project to learn from communities to move forward and will allow communities to see that their claims are heard and being adequately accommodated.

The content exhibited will be speculative, generated by my team. The reasoning for creating speculative content, rather than involving community members, was threefold. First, literature promoting community engagement and participatory design emphasizes the importance of investing in a relationship over time; Ashvin de Vos, who utilizes participatory design techniques in London, suggested that it can take as many as six months before sufficient trust is developed between communities and designers to begin participatory exercises (de Vos 2016). Time constraints of the project limited our ability to allow a relationship to form gradually and organically. This feeds into the second point: as students of design, the team was sensitive to the time demands already placed on communities impacted by the rail. The threat faced by these people is pressing and tangible—the decisions that determine the fate of their homes are being made each week. As a result, we felt that that community energy would be better spent participating in active community organizations or participating in government sponsored meetings. Lastly, the political nature of the project complicated the ethics of directly involving community members. Casual discussions with stakeholders and observations of the planning process during initial stages of the project immediately revealed the sensitive nature of the situation for community members—many were very hesitant to even speak with us off the record unless complete anonymity could be assured. Again, the time constraint precluded the development of a rigorous and ethical community engagement methodology, and the potential risks if anonymity was breached led us to opt for speculative design proposals. Moving forward, the success or failure of this research is contingent on whether it applies in the field; user testing and community involvement will be an essential dimension of any continued research.

In this context, the importance of political neutrality informed design decisions for the Camden Palimpsest. Co-production requires a healthy relationship between citizens and their governments. The Palimpsest will be a neutral platform for debate, even if the content posted is political in nature. The speculative content is representative of the way the tool can be used. The following section will introduce each piece of the content, the method of its production, the theoretical and evidence-based research which informed its design, and its anticipated role in the participatory design process as a whole. The section will conclude with an overview of the proposed urban palimpsest, anticipated areas for improvement, and future plans.

4.2.1 The Garden/Staging Ground

Using a LiDAR scanner to capture a 3D model of St James’ Gardens. The gardens are used as a base where content generated in relation to HS2 can be physically ‘placed’ and accessed using a VR headset.

St James’ Gardens are situated adjacent to Euston station. Formerly a graveyard, the gardens are currently used as a public park. Because of its proximity construction sites, the grounds will be used as a staging ground and storage space for construction materials during construction, making it inaccessible for the 17 years of HS2 developments (HS2 Ltd 2015c). Furthermore, the footprint of the park will be reduced by over 50%, as it is located where the new platforms for the high-speed rail lines will be built.

Given its central location, public accessibility, and large open space, we elected it to be the physical location where virtual content would be located. In other words, virtual content generated for the palimpsest will be located at the GPS coordinates of the park. The significance of designating a physical place is to emphasize the importance of the physical conditions that are at stake, as well as to provide a meeting point for live events held by the community, the government, or other stakeholders. The precise role that the staging ground plays will be clarified as more content is described.

In order to capture the park virtually, a series of LiDAR scans were captured to generate a highly detailed point cloud of the space. Binaural microphones were used to capture the current ambient noise levels of the park, which were then placed within the park using a 3D sound engine.

Visitors will be able to navigate virtual content placed in the park at a 1:1 scale using a Project Tango headset. The park can also be experienced remotely by downloading it into a headset. This provides the opportunity to engage users from other areas or those with mobility issues who would like to visit the content generated by Camden communities. St James’ Garden is meant to demonstrate how a public park could be used to anchor virtual content; other communities could elect a community centre, a plaza, a church, or a similar, publicly accessible space as the staging ground for their content, according to their needs.

4.2.2 Narrative Recording

A significant amount of content highlighting personal narratives of people who will be impacted by the project has been produced by organizations for and against HS2. The majority are documented as video recordings uploaded to (see Stop HS2 2016b). In one video, a woman tells her personal story as a former Olympian. She describes the sense of attachment and solidarity in her home and community, and shows the modifications made to her home which allow her to live independently after suffering a permanent injury that requires the use of a wheelchair.

Video showing how 3D videos of personal narratives can be captured using a Microsoft Kinect.

With 3D scanning technology, such as Project Tango and the Kinect, it is possible to record 3D videos of personal narratives. This tool could be used to present the narratives of individuals impacted by the project in a more visceral way. Using 3D videos of narratives is inspired by two projects, Blackout and Clouds Over Sidra. In Blackout, by Specular Studios, viewers can sit down and listen to the inner thoughts of people who are recorded using similar 3D video technology (Specular 2015). In a TED talk describing his work, Chris Milk explains VR’s unique ability to place people inside each other’s ‘personal space’, which, he believes, creates more empathy than any other medium (Milk 2015). In addition to these precedents, the decision to include 3D recordings was informed by evidence that VR experiences have a longer-lasting impact on behavior change than mental exercises in empathy (Ahn, Bailenson, and Park 2014; Ahn, Le, and Bailenson 2013; Groom, Bailenson, and Nass 2009). By utilizing techniques which create empathy, the Palimpsest can facilitate mutual understanding between community members, government officials, and distant strangers.

Using woman’s interview as a base, we created a reenactment of her interview that is viewable in 3D to serve as proof of concept. First, a scan of a similar apartment was made using the Tango. Second, an actor recited a transcript of the interview while being filmed using a Kinect. The 3D recording of the interview was placed inside the apartment. In the resulting experience, viewers can walk around the apartment while listening to the woman’s story. They can also sit next to the woman and listen to her directly.

The scan of the apartment with the 3D recording of the interview is physically located in St James’ Garden. Visitors to the park can walk in and around the apartment and listen to her recording by walking around St James’ Garden in person. As more content is recorded and added to the park, it is anticipated that a degree of self-sorting would occur, resulting in people being able to gather narrative recordings in the same area, or perhaps spread them out and place them in locations that are personally significant. As the Palimpsest develops, the layering of these stories could produce a rich environment that allows visitors to wonder and engage with content as it interests them.

4.2.3 New Apartment

As part of the compensation scheme, HS2 and HM Government are sponsoring the construction of new flats within Camden (HS2 Ltd 2015b). Two buildings by Matthew Lloyd Architects are currently under construction on Hampstead Road (Matthew Lloyd Architects 2015). While it is typical for architects to include renderings of design proposals to clients, it seems that no interior renderings have been made public.

The Palimpsest could host 3D visualizations of proposed apartments to help answer questions from the community. We created 3D model of a flat based off of exterior renderings of the building. In addition to showing the spatial conditions and material finishes, 3D sound of the anticipated construction noises was placed on the street relative to the apartment. While the content generated for the Palimpsest is currently not accurate to what the final apartments will look like or what the noise levels would be, ARUP Soundlab has the technology which could be applied to accurately simulate what noise levels would be heard within the new units (ARUP 2016). ARUP Soundlab has already done this to model sound conditions in the countryside (ibid.). Again, this demonstration could answer many of the questions raised by communities during consultations.

4.2.4 Drummond Street

Drummond Street has been home to specialty South Asian stores and restaurants since the 1980s. Business owners in the area formed an organization opposing HS2 because they fear the construction process will put them out of business. Merchants predict reduced foot traffic because, according to reports by Camden Council and HS2 Ltd, visitors will have to walk an additional 200m to get from Euston Station to Drummond Street (Hargreaves 2015; HS2 Ltd 2015a). In addition, businesses will have to deal with construction traffic, lack of thoroughfare traffic, and reduced foot traffic for an extended period of time—23 years if construction goes as planned.

A base model of the street was captured using a LiDAR scanner. The model can be used in several ways. First, it could be superimposed over St James’ Garden if narrative content refers to the street or its community. Second, the model of the street could act as a historical document archiving the culture that existed in the area should HS2 disrupt the community. Lastly, the model can itself become a base for content.

In response to concerns about accessibility and reduced business, we are proposing the creation of the Drummond Street Market. The market is a feasible plan to create a draw for Drummon Street businesses to help boost revenue while access is reduced due to HS2 construction. First, it is suggested that the community negotiates with HS2 to establish a weekly time period with restricted construction traffic during which businesses could host a street food fair. Tables and deployable rain shelters could be placed in the street to draw customers in. These events could be coordinated with the local community centers as well as the other markets in the area. Once the proposal is uploaded to the Camden Palimpsest, community members could discuss, modify, or discard the idea according to feedback.

We intentionally modeled this proposal using techniques that are or will be accessible and intuitive when the Tango is commercially available. First, we went to Camden Market and scanned stalls and carts that could be installed on Drummond Street. We also found free 3D models of benches and rain shelters online. Audio recordings of the ambient noise were captured using low-cost binaural microphones. The content was placed within the LiDAR scan of Drummond street using Unity game engine. In the resulting VR experience, viewers can walk through the street and experience the sounds and sights of what a market might look like.
Placing the content into Unity game engine is the most difficult step in this process, but apps could be specifically designed to be intuitive to non-designers. Precedent for intuitive design applications include Planner5d and an app by Lowe’s Hardware Store developed for Project Tango ( 2015; Google 2016b). Plans for the Drummond Street Market, as well as future community-generated proposals, will be available to all affected communities along the HS2 line as they can be easily downloaded to any smart phone with Tango. This will enable communities to collaborate with each other to share and adapt solutions to common problems resulting from urban development projects.

Using a technique we call “3D collage”, people can use portable 3D scanners to make inhabitable, 3D proposals for urban interventions by scanning existing architecture and placing it virtually.

4.3 Discussion

A key issue impacting all of the speculative content is the fidelity of rendering that is possible. The size of data impacts each step in the pipeline, from capturing, to manipulating, to viewing. In capturing, Project Tango provides a relatively low resolution, with settings that are accurate to approximately 1cm. This data is light and manageable during editing, but does not produce enough detail to be rendered in a ‘realistic’ way. On the other hand, the point cloud from the LiDAR scans is extremely detailed, but requires a powerful computer to edit or render.

The fidelity of rendered content is determined by the hardware used to view it. Because Project Tango is integrated with an android tablet, its processing power is much lower than that of a computer. The benefit is mobility, but in order to make a VR demo of content from the palimpsest, the resolution of images was significantly lowered and abstracted to somewhat sparse, transparent point clouds. Informal observations by users describe the experience as ‘stylized’ or ‘abstract’. Research shows that, while abstract point clouds may be relatively easy for architects to interpret as architecture, laypeople might not be able to understand it as readily (Wergles and Muhar 2009; Pietsch 2000; Shahin, Liang, and Khayyambashi 2010).

The potential for VR to become commercially viable and widespread will probably incentivize increases in processing power (Hachman 2016). In a few years time, it is possible that mobile tablets will be able to compete with desktop computers, or be capable of rendering comparable VR content. As such, the design team felt it would be beneficial to explore the design content in high-fidelity using the Occulus Rift with a powerful desktop computer, with the expectation that a mobile VR headset would soon be able to produce comparable results.

An important question not yet resolved in the Camden Palimpsest is the aesthetic quality of the content. Specifically, there is uncertainty as to whether content should be rendered with a cohesive graphic standard, or if the content should be allowed to take on whatever style or quality the contributor desires or achieves.

There is the risk of frustrating parties involved if they view their craftsmanship as compromised or obscured by an overarching graphic standard, such as a consistent density and color scheme for point cloud renderings. The advantage, however, is twofold. First, content could be maintained at a level of quality that is optimal for the hardware used to view it, especially if the rendering quality has parametric controls. Precedent for this type of rendering is Potree 1.3 point cloud renderer by Markus Schultz (Schultz 2015). At the time of submission, the design team was in contact with Schultz about adapting the software for the Palimpsest. Secondly, Steptoe et al. (2014) found that stylizing real and virtual content to a similar level of fidelity decreased the ability for people to determine if content is virtual, suggesting that a homogenizing filter could actually improve how immersive an experience is. It would also benefit less proficient designers by enabling their content to be rendered in a similar quality to that of professionals, while providing visual cohesion for the project as a whole.

Steptoe 2014 Images showing different degrees of abstraction to test discernability

Images from Steptoe et al. (2014) showing different rendering styles for VR in order to make it more difficult to discern between reality and virtual objects.

The risk of allowing content to be posted unfiltered is that novice designer contributions might look significantly inferior to professional renderings. Research shows that a lack of rendering quality leads non-designers to question the truthfulness or validity of design proposals, even if architects view the abstractions as ‘more accurate’ representations of design (Wergles and Muhar 2009; Bates-Brkljac 2007). On the other hand, allowing differing rendering qualities to exist side-by-side could also enhance how people approach the designs, either with more leniency if the rendering appears amateur, more cautiously if it appears flashy or idyllic, or more respectfully if it appears to be thoughtfully and professionally designed.
One hybrid solution we intend to integrate with the project is allowing users to cycle through rendering styles using a button on the headset. This would allow people to compare content in its original form or render them the same to focus on the spatial qualities. More importantly, it allows people to choose the rendering style they are most comfortable with, thereby increasing their ability to comprehend and contribute ideas to the project.

Our proposal suggests that current technology could improve participatory design in two ways. First, digital design tools can have a simple, intuitive interface while yielding immersive, semi-realistic representations. The technology should constantly be reassessed and explored for the primary objective of being accessible, both in the creation of media as well as the interpretation of it. In terms of the case study, the Camden Palimpsest interrogates shortcomings in the HS2 community engagement policy, and provides a concrete alternative for improving community engagement. However, it is important to consider the wider impact. This process has specifically been designed to be a flexible platform that could be utilized in a variety of contexts. By creating a tool, or a process for community engagement, the designers hope that the Virtual Palimpsest provides the means to engage communities as more than just consumers. It facilitates the discovery, discussion, and solutions to more complex and holistic understandings of their claims. The result helps make design more responsive to the community while increasing public support for urban development projects.

Lastly, the Virtual Palimpsest will become historical document that captures a multifaceted snapshot of an urban setting, from communities, individuals, the relationship between citizens and government, the architecture, to the future aspirations. Regardless of whether the community efforts preserve urban conditions or they are lost to change, people can visit the palimpsest to reflect on how their city used to be and their aspirations for its future.

5 Conclusion

This article examined strategies for participatory design using a high speed rail project in the UK as a case study. In particular, the roles of emerging digital technologies related to virtual reality were examined for their possible contributions to participatory design initiatives.

First, the compensation strategy employed by HS2 Ltd was shown to be inadequate. Literature suggests that some claims made by affected people during urban design projects cannot be compensated financially, such as the loss of community or a home. Next, participatory design was shown to be a viable method for alleviating these issues by enabling people to contribute to proposed solutions to the changes that impact them. Next, the accessibility of media generated for participatory design strategies was challenged. VR was put forward as an alternative medium, as it has been shown to produce spatial representations that are accessible for non-designers. The significance of mobile, untethered VR experiences was interrogated through two design research projects using Google’s Project Tango: the virtualization of King’s College Chapel and Traces of Reality at the Roundhouse. The projects confirmed the intuitive nature of VR and provided insight on how to improve rendering styles and create social, networked experiences.

The concept of the palimpsest was explored as a structure for a digitally-based participatory design tool. Drawing inspiration from the collaborative platform GitHub and intuitive design applications on Project Tango, a Virtual Palimpsest was proposed as a design research project. In response to the emphasis of impacted communities being treated as thinking, active members of society instead of as passive recipients of compensation, the Palimpsest is designed specifically to facilitate the generation and visualization of ideas, as a tool for communities to view government proposals and collaborate on cohesive plans in response. Speculative content for the Camden Palimpsest was generated and analyzed for its potential role in participatory design. Finally, technical limitations and wider applications were discussed, suggesting that technological advances will likely enable high-fidelity, mobile VR experiences, and that the platform could be applied in other urban development contexts.

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