Students studying, socializing, and spending time in Virginia Tech’s new state-of-the-art Creativity and Innovation District (CID) will take part in a novel study that uses remote sensing, multi-method data collection, and geographical theory to understand how a space becomes a place.

The project, led by Associate Professor Tim Baird in the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s (CNRE) Department of Geography, is funded by a $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Over three years, the study will allow researchers to observe human-building interactions inside the ground floor of the CID to determine how spaces become places filled with meaning, community, and culture. 

Baird is a human-environment geographer who has studied how humans interact with their resources and surroundings in the East African savanna. After moving into the CID with his family as the living-learning community faculty principal in 2021, he recognized that an exciting new indoor savanna awaited exploration.

“The spectacular new CID building, which serves as the setting for our project, is a house right now — and it’s slowly becoming a home,” he said. “We’re interested in how this transformation works and how it’s disrupted along the way. If we can figure out how ‘place,’ this magical thing, is made and lost, we can design better buildings and nudge people more effectively into community within important spaces.”

The project expands the scope of geographic research to building interiors, where Americans spend approximately 87 percent of their lives. According to Baird, the study is one of the first to integrate ethnographic, quantitative, social, and sensor-based spatial methods to examine how indoor space is used. To ensure a holistic approach, he enlisted a multidisciplinary team of faculty from CNRE; the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design; the College of Science; the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology

“I'm thrilled to be part of this multidisciplinary team where we will combine our expertise on theories from our own fields, such as geography and environment-behavior studies, and capitalize on multiple ways of approaching complex problems,” said Elif Tural, an associate professor of interior design who is a co-principal investigator on the project. “We hope our findings will inform the architecture and design of future campus buildings that support occupants’ physical, psychological, and social well-being.”

The six-story CID, completed in 2021 to serve as a hub of interdisciplinary innovation, has earned awards for its student-centric design from the Design-Build Institute of America and Interface Student Housing. Within its 232,000 gross square feet, the building houses 600 residents, three living-learning communities, and multiple spaces meant to encourage collaboration and creativity, including lounges, classrooms, art studios, a performance hall, a maker space, and a library. To Baird, who lives and works with students year-round in the CID, the building offered the ideal smart and connected living-learning laboratory for exploring human-space interaction.

“We build these spectacular spaces, this whiz-bang building, and the question is: Is it worth it? Does all the ‘designeyness’ matter? Is it nudging us toward our values of community, inspiration, creativity, and innovation?” Baird asked. “In a building like this, we’re constantly trying to build culture, despite the annual disruptions of summer breaks and routine turnover. So, our study is about the cycles of culture-building throughout different types of spaces amidst disruption. Sorting through different types of data can be deeply insightful.”

People collaborate on ideas
Tom Pingel (at left) and Tim Baird, both associate professors in the Department of Geography and co-investigators on the study, stand in front of a screen projection of lidar images inside the Creativity and Innovation District. Photo by Marya Barlow for Virginia Tech.

Bringing lidar into the living room

Over the summer, the Virginia Tech research team outfitted the CID’s Community Assembly — the main-floor student atrium — with 11 inconspicuous overhead lidar sensors. Lidar, short for “light detection and ranging” sensors, send out harmless invisible light pulses that bounce off objects and return detailed 3D measurements in the form of data-rich records called “point clouds.” 

The technology has traditionally been used for outdoor applications such as aerial mapping, geography, meteorology, and autonomous vehicles. Inside the CID, the lidar will return data on when, where, and how people are using certain public spaces.

Associate Professor of Geography Tom Pingel, a co-principal investigator and expert in remote sensing technology, said the project represents a “new frontier” in how lidar is being used in novel areas such as social science.

“This project has been an interesting rethinking of lidar technology and what’s possible in an indoor space,” Pingel said. “Many outdoor places in the United States have only been imaged with lidar once in the last 20 years. In contrast, we’re imaging the CID community space twice per second. That opens up a whole new frontier in point cloud algorithm design that will be necessary to make sense of that data stream.”

Pingel said lidar offers a distinct advantage over other surveillance methods, such as cameras, in that it’s capable of capturing high-resolution images while also shielding the privacy of its subjects. 

“We’re excited to use lidar in this application because, unlike video, it’s anonymized right at the point of collection,” Pingel said. “All we see is an aggregated cluster of dots – no faces are visible. Privacy is huge concern, and we want to make sure that people feel comfortable in the space.”

To complement the lidar data, the study will incorporate surveys and interviews with building occupants, designers, and campus administrators as well as anonymized audio recordings gleaned from soundfield microphones placed throughout the Community Assembly. The information will then be integrated and analyzed to create a mathematical model that reveals patterns in how place emerges, gets disrupted, and is rebuilt over time.

Associate Professor of mathematics Nicole Abaid, who will lead integrative data modeling for the project, said, “My previous work is almost exclusively about modeling how nonhuman animals communicate and move in groups, so I’m excited to have the opportunity to think more about how humans interact. At this early stage of the project, how spaces become places seems like a subtle process that, hopefully, can be uncovered by the data-driven analyses we're planning.”

Person works on technology
A technician from Lee Hartman and Sons installs one of 11 lidar sensors spread throughout the Community Assembly area of the Creativity and Innovation District. Photo by Rodney Kimbangu for Virginia Tech.

Students double as subjects and researchers

Students will be at the forefront of the project – with opportunities to play both active and passive roles in the research. Several undergraduate and graduate students will be engaged as research assistants. And an undergraduate student advisory board composed of CID residents was convened early this fall to consult on best practices for student engagement as well as privacy and data security.

Keith Khan, a sophomore majoring in industrial design and a second-year resident of the Rhizome living-learning community, volunteered for the advisory board and will participate in the study.

“The project really spoke to me in relation to my studies because what I’m supposed to do as a designer is at the crux of this,” he said. “We have a responsibility to make the things that allow our society to function best and help people feel happy, included, and productive. We live most of our life in constructed space, so it makes sense to try to understand what makes a space a home, and construct spaces that help us live better. I’m excited about it mainly because it fills a huge gap in knowledge about how spaces function.”

Khan described his experience in the CID as “the best fulfillment of the label, ‘Creativity and Innovation District,’” citing well-designed spaces that offer residents a combination of social and academic outlets.

“We have a place for study and a place for relaxation that makes the academic part a lot less stressful,” he said. “The fact that the building has been able to pull that off very elegantly is one of its greatest strengths.”

Once the study is complete, the team hopes to share results through academic and industry publications – providing another human-centric layer of research to guide building design. Baird and Pingel also plan to develop and co-teach a new undergraduate course called Indoor Geography to encourage more interdisciplinary exploration of how place is formed.

"Place, which is that kind of magical quality that some spaces attain, is a product of both use and meaning,” Baird said. “Technology can give us great data about use, like where people sit or where groups gather, while tried and true social science approaches, like interviews and surveys, can help us to understand the meaning behind this use. Together, these approaches can show us how, where and when that place-y magic grows – or doesn't.” 

Along with principal investigator Baird, the project’s co-principal investigators are Pingel, Abaid, Tural, and David Franusich, multimedia designer in the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology. Senior personnel include Tanner Upthegrove, media engineer in the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, and David Kniola, assistant professor of practice in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences' School of Education. 

“Geography and related disciplines are deeply engaged with understanding how human behaviors are connected to configurations of spaces and then the places that humans create — an approach some researchers call spatially integrated social science,” said Tom Crawford, professor and chair of the Department of Geography. “I am pleased to see this convergence of researchers from across campus and disciplines working to make discoveries about things that are fundamental to our everyday lives – how indoor environments contribute to the formation of friendships, families, and communities.”

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