PEARL (Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory) is a unique facility located in London to explore the ways in which people interact with their environment. It is a massive space — around 44,000m³ — in which we can create life-sized environments — a railway station, high street, town square — under controlled conditions, so that we can examine how people interact with the environment and other people in these types of places. We can change the profile, type and material of the floor, simulate lighting of any color and intensity, create sound from the tiniest bird song to the most massive explosion, include other senses, such as smell, and much more.
A conversation between Nick Tyler and The Canvas
Nick, briefly share with us your background leading up to your role as head of PEARL.
I started out as a musician for 10 years. Afterwards, I found a Master's program that led me to AI [Artificial Intelligence] in design of high capacity bus systems in Brazil. From there I started a lecturing job in university that continued to me being head of civil engineering for 10 years. I realized we didn't fully understand how people interact with the environment. So before PEARL, I built a facility to investigate how people interact with the environment at scale. However, we ran out of space — so we built a new one, which is what PEARL [Person-Environment-Activity-Research-Laboratory] is, just a larger version with more capability, more capacity.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that PEARL is part of the much broader network of R&D facilities under UKCRIC [UK Collaboratorium For Research On Infrastructure And Cities]. Can you speak to the objective and/or mission of UKCRIC?
UKCRIC was set up on the basis that the UK Government is going to spend £600 billion or so on infrastructure in the next 50 years. We really needed to rethink the whole concept of what we mean by infrastructure and cities, in order to reform the research that informs those studies. We realized that in order to conduct that research, we needed R&D facilities. So we set up this network of university laboratories around the country that each have a different focus: from materials, sensors, linear infrastructure, underground infrastructure, data, etcetera. PEARL is the only facility in the UKCRIC network that deals directly with people.
It's difficult to study circulation within spaces and emotions of its varied conditions without people.
Even more multiscale than that. If you want to know about circulation flows, you've got to kind of work out how one person circulates, and how they interact with other people in that environment. And that will start to tell you how crowds develop. You don't just have a mass of people, even if you have a million people marching in a demonstration. Inside that million people, you will have lots of vortices informing how the whole crowd actually acts dynamically.
What are a couple of projects that have been studied in the PEARL facility?
At the moment we've built a park that is for psychiatry, expert doctoral work, the experiment for a doctoral thesis where they're looking at children with various kinds of cognitive challenges, such as people with autism, ADHD, ADD, amongst others. There seems to be some issue around urban parks, where you have on the one hand, this natural piece of grass, trees and plants; on the other hand, you have traffic, traffic noise, helicopters, sirens, and the disconnect. So we built a park sufficient enough that the child believes they're in a park. The PEARL facility has back projected screens of park life: natural trees blowing in the wind, people moving around and all that sort of stuff. And as that comes into the visual field of view of the child, it becomes real. We've actually split the soundscape into different layers too. So you have your swirly wind kind of noise, layered over noise from traffic, trucks, buses and helicopters. And we mix that up and play with the noise and put a sound layer in, take a sound layer out, see how the participants are actually responding to all of that within that controlled environment. The psychiatrists are then in a position to conduct the psychiatry tests.
Who funds the research?
The building is partly funded by the government and partly funded by University College London [UCL]. The park project for instance is funded primarily by UCL.
Are the facility's resources and spaces open to the private sector?
Yes. We have a charge rate which is calculated according to load principles. I'm very keen on getting the universities away from existing behind ivory tower walls, and into the community, into the public.
When data is collected, is it published to the public, and if so, can the data remain confidential?
We are a public body, a public university, funded with public money; therefore, the default is that the data should be open and accessible within the requirements of ethical approvals. However, it is possible that a private business does research here, and they can ensure the data remains private. But I think the principle is that it should be public. If we go away from that, there needs to be a good public reason.
What's next for PEARL?
The international dimension — how do we research internationally because there is no other facility like this. And we've had a lot of interest from people from the States, Japan, and from around Europe.
What brand, organization, or institution would you like to see using PEARL?
The public. It's an interesting concept as well, the public as a brand. I think part of the mission here is to enable Mrs. Smith just to wander in and say, “You know what? This thing really trips me up every time I go to the supermarket, and I just want to make a change.”