PEARL – Urban Mobility’s Newest Playground

PEARL (Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory) is a unique facility to explore the ways in which people interact with their environment. It is a massive space – around 44,000 m3 – in which life-sized environments – a railway station, high street, town square – can be created under controlled conditions. This allows researchers of urban mobility to examine how people interact with the environment and other people in these types of places.

PEARL offers the startups of EIT Urban Mobility the opportunity to test beyond the regular conditions of cities and to develop a better understanding of behaviours in real environments due to the multiple sensing options available in the facility. It’s no longer an issue to test all implications of different technologies as it is allowing the focus to be on developing the best user experiences while safety is guaranteed by design. Startups in EIT Urban Mobility programmes are going one step beyond the traditional accelerators as the organisation financed by the EU supports companies with a real positive proven impact on citizens and cities. As such, startups need to comply with far more than just a validated technology and a good business model. The ethical and social requirements of accessibility, inclusivity and positive impact need to be validated in an exhaustive testing lab that goes the extra mile. The partnership between PEARL and EIT Urban Mobility could be a natural extension of the values of PEARL compared to other testing facilities by making the cutting edge of a technology application become a mere pre-requisite of the overall service nurtured in the programmes of EIT Urban Mobility with their mobility startups. 

On 21 April, Nick Tyler, Director of the Centre of Transport Studies at UCL, discussed the features of the PEARL facility with the partners of the EIT Urban Mobility Innovation Hub West community.

The ceiling of the facility is fitted with an unbelievable 500,000 LED lights (contained within 300 light fixtures) in order to manipulate the space into representing the actual daylight from anywhere in the world, at any given time. Additionally, the profile, type and material of the floor are also variable, and sound from the tiniest bird song to the loudest explosion can be tracked. The dynamic 3D spatial audio system can also move sounds around the space and vary its acoustic properties to reflect the soundscape and acoustic properties of the scenario being replicated. The audio manipulation is also assisted by the 175 million holes in the walls which help to manage the acoustics of the area. Other senses, such as smell, and much more are also able to be manipulated in this facility.

The idea behind PEARL is that much of our understanding about how cities work is based on a lot of assumptions about how people respond to, use and act in the environment. Many of these assumptions are based on experience over many years and are valid in general, but often the models just don’t represent what happens in practice. At PEARL, researchers can study how people actually interact with the environment and with each other by replicating the scenario they are testing. They are able to collect data about how they respond physically, psychologically, physiologically, and neurologically to these situations. The outcomes can then be viewed from the pop-up theatre which can seat up to 500 people. This is particularly useful for physically showing groups of people, such as a government body, potential developers, planners, urban designers, etc. how changes can and should be made, rather than explaining it in a document which would never be as effective.

You can learn more about PEARL, how can it help you as a city, government, industry, or as a researcher here.