Architectural psychology and storytelling for virtual spaces / by Kim Baumann Larsen

We have shaped our surroundings as they have shaped us since the dawn of time. With human emotions and thinking affected by our environments, and VR having the power to instantly transport anyone to any imaginary space, we can look to architectural psychology and environmental storytelling to create comfortable virtual spaces that evoke the desired emotions in users to ensure that virtual spaces will shape the human experience in positive ways.


It is the power of combining the sense of being somewhere here and now with the possibility to offer a larger than life experience, similar to that of science fiction films, that has drawn me — as an architect — to explore the design of virtual architectural spaces. Renown VR artist Kevin Mack, who won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for “What Dreams May Come”, says that “The fundamental innovation of virtual reality is spatial presence - the sensation of being present in a place. The ability to directly communicate the first person subjective experience of spatial presence brings an entirely new dimension to communication.” In exploring this, he continues, “Throughout history, artists, like architects, have used spatial presence to mediate experience in reality. VR makes it possible to mediate experience unconstrained by the limits of reality.” [1]

However, while one could design unconstrained by the limits of reality, and argue for creating spatial experiences void of any reference to the real world — unbounded by gravity and physics — we still rely on our brain to process sensory inputs from virtual experiences. One of the oldest parts of our brain, the limbic system is implicated as the seat of emotion, mood, and emotional processes. The limbic system responds to sensory input as if we were still in the ancient past where flight or fight could mean life or death, which is why it is referred to as the lizard brain.

With the essence of VR being that feel we are present somewhere and, our limbic system holding so much power over our feelings, it makes sense to look at research into architectural psychology and what it has taught us about how our built environment affects us so that we can achieve powerful experiences when we design virtual spaces. There is evidence that supports this, both as something we sense intuitively and have started to measure scientifically. Winston Churchill famously said “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”. [2] Later, epidemiologists found that people raised in cities are more prone to mental disorders than those raised in the countryside and neuroscientists find that people living in cities have a much higher risk of schizophrenia. [3] Researcher Colin Ellard has investigated the psychological impact of design and has found that people’s thoughts, emotions, and physical responses are strongly affected by our built environment. If a building façade has a uniform plainness it affects people negatively, while the opposite is true for more varied and complex façades. [4]

In an experiment in Iceland in 2013, participants viewing computer generated residential street scenes reported those with the most architectural variation having higher restorative qualities. [5] One theory is that the visual complexity of environments acts as a kind of mental balm.

In my own architectural designs, curves have always been present, possibly as a nod to futurism and science fiction. It could be that humans in general may like curves better than straight lines though. In a study from 2011, comparing the effects of rounded and straight-edged furniture on people's emotions, “curvilinear settings elicited higher amounts of pleasant-unarousing emotions (such as feeling relaxed, peaceful, and calm) than the rectilinear settings”. [6] While it may not be practical or space efficient having curved spaces and furniture in our homes and cities, virtual spaces don’t have such limitations.

In a study at the University of British Columbia in 2009 [7] people were put in rooms of different colours and asked to perform a series of tasks. People in the blue space performed worse on short-term memory tasks, while doing much better when tasked with creative assignments requiring imagination. According to scientists the colour blue triggers associations with the sky and ocean. Recalling a beach experience acts as a mental relaxation exercise making us more aware of possibilities afforded by our own imagination.

When test subjects were put in a room the colour of blood they were much better at skills that required accuracy and attention to detail, such as recalling numbers from short-term memory or identifying spelling mistakes. Scientists say this is because people associate red with danger, making us much more alert and aware.

Filmmakers have long taken advantage of color to impact emotions. Color grading and the creative use of lighting is used to change the emotional tone of a scene to support the story and characters. While the choice of colours in a virtual scene can’t always be changed, we can use color grading to change the overall tone and color of a scene in post and modify its emotional tone. Current popular real-time engines have post-processing effects to allow designers of virtual environments the same tools as filmmakers to impact the emotions of the users by manipulating lights and color alone. A sense of serenity and calm can be created using soft, even, and warm lighting from openings and skylights while a predominately dark, high contrast scene with in a cooler color will give a feeling of uneasiness and tension.

When designing a virtual space, identifying the proper cultural signifiers as well as materials and virtual construction methods for a design will help build a proper story space. In theatre and film, in particular in sci-fi and fantasy, production design is a key tool used to support characters and narrative. This is environmental storytelling and it is even more powerful in VR, since the user in many cases can linger and even pick up and examine objects. Every prop, artwork, and piece of furniture put into a scene should therefore support the narrative of the space or it risks telling a different story.

Unlike most arrivals in the real world where entering a new space is the result of a continuous movement through physical space, arriving in a VR experience can be disorienting. For some users, feeling lost or disoriented can result in anger, frustration, and discomfort. In VR user comfort is key and making sure it is easy to navigate and orient oneself will aid comfort for users generally. Providing the user with a possibility space is similar to good architectural designs that allow people to quickly build a mental spatial map of how affordances relate to each other. [8] Equally important is alluding to ways out of the space, such as a virtual door or window. While we may not consciously think about getting out of a virtual space, a room without doors or windows creates feelings of constriction and bears a resemblance to a prison.

While realism is not required for a sense of presence in virtual spaces, a conscious attitude towards scale is key. Maintaining real world scale for familiar elements such as doors and columns are crucial unless the designer wants to make the user feel small or big which will either give the user a sense of disempowerment or empowerment.

As virtual reality matures and more people spend increasing time inside a myriad of virtual environments for work, education and play, we should look both to architectural psychology and architectural and urban design theory as well as environmental and visual storytelling to make sure we create comfortable spaces and trigger the appropriate feelings in users as they socialise and explore an infinite number of virtual universes.

(This article originally appeared in print in The VR/AR Watch - special edition: Real Estate / AEC magazine published by Laval Virtual in March 2019.)

[1] Mack, Kevin (2019). Artist Statement. Retrieved from
[2] Churchill, Winston (1944). Speech in the House of Commons on October 28, London, UK.
[3] Abbot, Alison (2011). City living marks the brain. Nature 474, 429
[4] Ellerd, Colin (2015). Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life. Bellevue Literary Press
[5] Lindal, P.J. & Hartig, T., (2013). Architectural variation, building height, and the restorative quality of urban residential landscapes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 33, 26 - 36
[6] Dazkir, S. S. & Read, M. A. (2011) Furniture Forms and Their Influence on Our Emotional Responses Toward Interior Environments. Environment and Behavior 20(10), 1–13.
[7] Mehta, Ravi & Zhu, Rui (2009). Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Science  27 Feb 2009: Vol. 323, Issue 5918, 1226-1229
[8] Jeffrey, K.J., (2017). Spatial reference frames and the sense of direction. Anthologies, Conscious Cities: Bridging Neuroscience, Architecture, and Technology