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VSimulators is a £4.8 million EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) government-funded national research facility developed between the Universities of Exeter, Bath and Leicester. The two complementary research platforms will be located at the Universities of Bath and Exeter, and both are currently under construction.

The equipment will support collaborative research across a range of disciplines, including engineering, health, medicine, physiology, architecture and psychology, to explore how people respond to the built environment. For example, VSimulators will be used to explore the effects of motion for occupants in a tall building which sways in the wind. This has been found to lead to tiredness, low mood, and difficulty in concentrating, as well as a lack of motivation for the occupant. Such symptoms can impact negatively on wellbeing and productivity and, therefore, have an impact for building developers, designers, contractors and owners, as well as business occupants.

Specialist contractors, working with academic and technical staff at the University of Bath, have designed and are now constructing the VSimulators facility in the Structures Laboratory at the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering. This has involved the design and installation of a motion platform by Servotest Testing Systems Ltd, a climate chamber designed by Temperature Applied Science Ltd and the creation of projected virtual reality environments designed and installed by Antycip Ltd.

The VSimulators facility will enable the precise control of subtle motion, temperature, light, humidity, sound and air quality, enabling researchers to adjust the environmental conditions and monitor the human responses. It is anticipated that such research will impact positively on the design of sustainable buildings, with a reduction in wasted energy, alongside positive impacts on productivity and occupant wellbeing.

Servotest are a specialist supplier of innovative custom servo-hydraulic mechanical testing solutions. Using hydraulic actuators, they have designed a platform which can move in three different directions within bespoke parameters to a high degree of accuracy, enabling researchers to take recordings from existing structural motion and replicate within a controlled environment. Following rigorous factory acceptance testing, the platform was manoeuvred into a precise location using a tri-lifter.

Andy Prior, Managing Director from ServoTest, said:

We are delighted to work with the University of Bath to bring into commission their ‘man-rated’, multiaxial simulation table. This project has presented some keen control challenges for us, as it requires very smooth operations at low loads. There needs to be very low noise (hydraulic / electrical) and distortion on the acceleration to ensure the test subjects are unaware of the motion simulation. The Servotest team have done a great job to provide technical solutions to these challenges that will provide the most realistic and effective testing for the University.”

The environmental chamber was designed and supplied by Temperature Applied Sciences Ltd, which is a UK manufacturer of bespoke Environmental Simulation Systems, with many decades’ of experience. The test chamber supplied to the University of Bath for the VSimulators platform has 14 independent control loops, covering temperature, humidity, air-flow and lighting, plus a number of hot and cold radiators, which posed significant and unusual design challenges. All the environmental variables are under programmable control, simulating an almost infinite variety of day and night scenarios. The remote plant and instrumentation packages are connected to the test chamber via flexible hoses and umbilical cables, while the test chamber has been designed to be rigid and lightweight, to withstand the considerable force of the Servotest platform.

Timothy Stevens, Technical Director Temperature Applied Science Ltd, said:

“ I was very excited to learn that the University of Bath had again selected Temperature Applied Sciences to work on another project. The Test Chamber is very much the hub of the VSimulators, whereby all of the technologies converge. We were presented with two distinct challenges. Firstly, the Chamber had to be very light but also very rigid. Secondly, no less than fourteen control loops were necessary, all of which had to be under programmable control. Our modular system was perfect for the application and has capacity to spare for any future enhancements.

The 3-D VR environments, created by simulation and virtual reality company Antycip, will be projected onto three walls to create a realistic impression of living and working in a building space, including a modern apartment and an office with external views of a low rise city or a dense, high rise city. These scenes are in the process of being installed and tested in the VSimulators facility and will enable participants to experience and respond to virtual surroundings, adjusted according to the time of day.

Chris Waldron, UK Regional Manager, Antycip Simulation, said:

"Like the other organisations, Antycip is very pleased to be working with the University of Bath on this fascinating VSimulators project. As with many of the professional grade VR projects that we are asked to work on, this came with a set of unique challenges; the image size and nature requirements, the confined area, the angle of projection, and the need to cope with the movement of the platform, all restricted the projector and lens choices, plus created a set of related engineering prescriptions that we had to work to. In meeting these challenges, the experience and expertise that Antycip is known for, was called on, and I'm very pleased to say that, once again, our team has delivered and, in so doing, helped make this project, and its research, a reality."

Dr Antony Darby, Head of Civil Engineering at the University of Bath, said:

This unique facility will enable us to test psychological and physiological responses to motion and the environment. This will enable us to assess wellbeing and help us to come up with design criteria for tall buildings and working and living environments.

He added:

I would like to thank all our contractors and the technicians in our Structures Lab for their hard work in getting the facility up and running in time for the autumn launch.”

The EPSRC-funded project will also feature a VSimulator platform based at the University of Exeter, which will include a 4x4 metre ‘motion platform’ with in an 8x8 metre room. The VSimulators facility at the University of Exeter will also offer a fully instrumented floor to record pressure and movement in fine detail, as well as motion capture technology and immersive virtual reality capabilities for up to nine occupants, simultaneously.

An official launch for the VSimulators at University of Bath facilities will take place on 9th October 2019.

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