How Researchers Use Virtual Reality to Capture a ‘Vibe’

Technology helps WeWork design spaces more attuned to people’s needs

by Charlotte Klein

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This article is part of a series called Future Space, which focuses on innovations in design, technology, and other fields.

WeWork has lots of tools to measure how its locations are being used—think surveys to analyze how many people use a stairway or sensors that calculate when a conference room is busiest. But how do you measure something as intangible as the feeling, or vibe, of a space?

For WeWork’s Fundamental Research team, the answer is by combining two very different pieces of cutting-edge technology: a pair of virtual reality glasses and a headset that measures brain waves.

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Looking through the glasses, study participants were shown 360-degree renderings of several different WeWork spaces, each with a distinct aesthetic. A space shown in Madrid was characterized by light wood floors and large windows with views of greenery; a Tokyo space was similarly neutral, with a glass curtain wall exterior. These spaces were shown in comparison to slightly darker spaces, such as a Dublin space with less natural light. Participants were asked to identify a space in each room where they could see themselves having a meeting, socializing with colleagues, or getting some work done.

The futuristic headsets—called mobile electroencephalography devices—use tiny sensors to measure the participants’ emotional response to each space. The EEG headset detected that people felt more relaxed in some spaces but more focused in others.

“We don’t want to just ask members whether or not they like our spaces; we actually want to quantify what the emotional experience is for the individual,” says Annie Cosgrove, a senior design researcher at WeWork who conducted the study.

Her preliminary results, which the team released this month, show that spaces with more natural light and brighter finishes are associated with significantly higher levels of focus and interest.

The study began with a design survey of WeWork members across 162 locations around the world who were asked how well certain adjectives—such as active, stimulating, pleasant, or beautiful—characterized their space. Cosgrove says the results of that study made them want to gather some hard data.

“Because design is subjective, the EEG headset was an exciting way to objectively measure emotional response,” Cosgrove says. “This isn’t mind reading; this is actual feedback, potentially, about individuals on what works for them and what doesn’t.”

Cosgrove says that while this technology is new, it could eventually help the design team understand the effect of space on people in a more objective way.

“Having a better understanding of how people react differently to different spaces can help us design spaces more attuned to people’s needs,” she adds.

Claire Rowell, a workplace research lead at WeWork, was one of several participants to experience this new technology for herself.

“It was empowering to be on the inside,” Rowell says of her experience wearing the headset and seeing her emotional responses on a computer screen. She became more aware of how her environment changes her emotions.

“I was experiencing a change in heart rate, in bodily rhythms,” she says. “Even if I don’t realize it, everything I do is based on a brain feedback loops. I can be more mindful of that having worn this headset.”

Making research fun and meaningful

The Fundamental Research team isn’t the only department at WeWork experimenting with VR. The Workplace Strategy team is using it to work with companies taking space at WeWork.

“We tested VR with a big healthcare company, and we had people walk through different WeWork environments and had them fill out a survey,” says senior lead Stephanie Park. “They then filled out a survey on their current space and we saw what the difference between how they rated WeWork space versus their current space.”

Park says VR makes it easier to collect data on how people react to a particular space.

We’re making the research experience both fun for the user and meaningful for us,” she says.

Cosgrove says that one of the most useful parts of VR technology is the potential to measure productivity in the workplace. In addition to providing a pleasant work environment, WeWork’s design researchers want to make sure they’re providing the right setting for people to actually get work done.

“There’s a fine line between having a space be exciting and uplifting, versus chaotic and distracting,” Cosgrove says. “These adjectives were actually used in the initial design survey, but the EEG study allowed us to quantify what was actually happening for, say, the anxiety levels of a person who is more introverted in a WeWork space.”

Cosgrove says that the research could be especially useful when WeWork is designing space for large corporations through its services like Powered by We. It will help them design environments that enhance productivity and collaboration.

Bright aesthetic qualities like natural lighting and prominent greenery are things that designers know make a difference to people. But to be able to quantify that impact would allow companies to see—through data—how design can create a better employee experience.

“An organization cares about how a WeWork environment impacts their employee’s productivity because they are economically incentivized to do so,” Rowell adds.

Corporations often make decisions on behalf of thousands of employees, which means it’s hard to take into account the needs of individual employees. But Rowell says WeWork is helping to changing this.

“The power of the workplace is everyone coming together and being better as a result,” says Rowell. “If we can use these emerging technologies to show the impact of design on an individual level, that could then extend to the group.”

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