The mLab in Arup's Seattle office; The mLab in Arup's Seattle office;

m|Lab, New York, Seattle, Washington DC, Amsterdam

A mobile, immersive environment born out of the Arup SoundLab

A step towards an interactive, engaging and collaborative design future, the m|Lab combines aspects of Arup’s SoundLab with Virtual Reality (VR) technology to create highly engaging sensory experiences of the built environment.

The m|Lab is a roughly 9ft x 9ft x 8ft space constructed of Unistrut aluminium frames and high-end plywood doors that can be transported and mobilised to any location. The innovative virtual environment debuted at the 2016 Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York City. Arup’s acousticians worked with architecture firm Stereotank to create the structure.

The m|Lab uses the most advanced VR and 3D audio to recreate any aspect of the built environment, from the interior of concert halls or train stations, to the exterior urban environment. The design of new environments can be clearly and instantly compared to existing experiences. Spatial coordination throughout the design phases is simplified for collaborators. It enables informed multi-sensory decision-making to happen from the very earliest design phases of a project, and is an easily accessible means to communicate design to anyone.

The technology behind m|Lab

The m|Lab is designed to function successfully in a noisy indoor context such as a busy conference centre – when all doors are closed, the m|Lab attenuates sound by about 15 dB(A). The m|Lab has sound-absorbing materials on the interior of the panels to control the acoustics like a recording studio. Together, this creates acoustic intimacy and amplifies the sense of immersion into the VR experience.

In order to achieve our rigorous sound isolation targets we proposed the use of half-inch plywood, which as a 4ft x 4ft element is quite heavy. Our first experiments with a mock up showed that adjustments to the hinge needed to be made to appropriately support the weight. Arup's structural engineers devised solutions that would help support the weight of the doors, and make the overall structure more resilient.

m|Lab is built around a bespoke software process that combines virtual reality (VR) visualisation with 3D audio. VR is a fast moving market in which most demos are carried out using head mounted displays (HMD) with headphones. In a group setting, the use of headphones results in sonically isolating individuals and prevents communication from within the VR experience. With the m|Lab, up to four participants can share a VR experience and carry on a design conversation with each other without the obstruction of headphones. This takes us one step closer to a fully seamless collaborative experience of a virtual space, which we believe will be a key part of experiential design environments of the future.