Virtual Reality Soundbooths in action; Virtual Reality Soundbooths in action;

Virtual reality soundbooths, London & South East England

Communicating changes in aircraft noise for a public consultation

Information relating to changes in aircraft noise can be challenging for communities to understand. Reading noise contours and decibel levels can have little meaning to those who are directly affected.

When Heathrow Airport started an 8-week consultation on the airspace and future operations of the airport between January and March 2019, they briefed Arup to help them deliver meaningful, objective sound demonstrations to the communities that could be affected. An important part of the brief was to present the information in a really engaging way and to try and widen the demographic that had been reached at previous consultations.

To communicate the potential noise impact that stakeholders and communities could be facing, our acoustics, virtual and visualisation teams developed three fully mobile Soundbooths equipped with a set of virtual reality sound demonstrations. These were aimed at helping communities to:

  • Understand Heathrow’s proposals 

  • Work out what the proposals meant to them as individuals

  • Better engage in the consultation and decision-making process

The VR Soundbooths are pioneering and will pave the way for other airports around the world to consider the same approach to engage with the public about noise issues. We believe that they have defined best practice in the communication of aircraft noise changes. Their wider application will provide significant societal benefits and help communities to engage more effectively in consultation and decision-making processes such as the Airspace Change Process.

Project Summary

132 demonstrations available

24consultation events toured

Integrating Virtual Reality for an inclusive, immersive experience

For the first time at an airspace public consultation level, the demonstrations were made available in an interactive virtual reality environment, which combined a virtual user interface, 360 video footage and 3D planes with detailed spatial audio recordings of aircraft and different background ambient sound recordings.

With some people living in areas that currently do not experience aircraft noise, having the information available in a virtual reality environment with immersive 3D visuals and head-tracked spatial audio provided a real understanding of the potential impacts on their communities. It went beyond previous sound demonstrations to also communicate the visual impact of being overflown as well as the sound of different aircraft in operation.

The demonstrations were delivered with an innovative but simple 3D menu system that incorporated an element of augmented reality to allow users to operate the demonstration’s selection menu using their own hands. In order to engage with a wide range of demographics, the interface was designed to be easily accessible and operational, with the interface and experience catering for a vast range of ages (from seven to seventy years of age). A touchscreen version of the demonstrations was made available to accommodate those who were unable/unwilling to use virtual reality headsets. The majority of consultees reached decided to use the Virtual Reality version of the demonstrations.

The same augmented reality was used to allow users to interact directly with the demonstrations themselves, so they could ‘toggle’ between different sounds (e.g. with and without sound insulation) in real time.

Leveraging our SoundLab to design sound-proof booths


The Soundbooths needed to be deployed at consultation events, a very busy and noisy environment. Specifying and delivering sound-controlled booths was therefore a key focus. We worked closely with Strata to undertake controlled listening tests in our SoundLab™ facility. This included simulating the expected reverberant noise levels from a busy consultation event and using this experience (a purpose-built sound booth for acoustic assessment) to define a required sound insulation performance for the Soundbooths. Acoustic tests of the sound insulation performance were then carried out, both before and after fit-out, to confirm the required performance was met.


Uncompromising accuracy and reliability

Sound demonstrations accurately recreate existing or predicted sound environments. To achieve this, our sound demonstrations were based on audio recordings of aircraft operating in and out of Heathrow. At the same time, the sound level was measured using a Type 1 sound level meter to ensure that sounds could be played back at the correct level. The recordings were then converted to a headphone-based audio system known as ‘binaural audio’ to allow the spatial distribution of the sounds to be experienced over headphones.

Each set of headphones was carefully calibrated before each demonstration session, a crucial aspect of the Quality Assurance procedure. Combined with rigorous technical reviews and verification, this ensured that what was being heard by the listener reproduced the scenario being demonstrated to a high level of technical accuracy.

To ensure the reliability and accuracy of the experience, we engaged with the Noise Expert Review Group (NERG) throughout the production process. Its members have extensive experience in different aspects of acoustics, noise and health, and aim to provide independent assurance of the scientific and policy robustness of the assessment and mitigation of sound, noise and vibration. including effects on health and quality of life.

All good things come from successful collaborations

Delivering the project within 12 weeks without compromising the quality of the experience provided a challenge to the team. Key to the project’s success was the excellent partnership borne between Arup and Heathrow, and the flawless collaboration with Strata. The sound demonstrations themselves were designed at the same time as all other consultation materials were in development, which allowed the project team to considerably save time. This required careful liaison with the different consultants involved in the process. Close collaboration with our project partner Strata was also necessary during the rapid design stage to ensure the Soundbooths were created to meet the required acoustic criteria. Particular care was required to provide a demountable and robust solution that could be toured between the venues.

I think the Soundbooths have been a really popular addition to the consultations that have been ongoing now for about a year because they take a very complicated topic and give a real reference point for the conversations that we have with members of the public. ” Emma Gilthorpe, speaking to BBC Radio Berkshire Executive Director for Expansion, Heathrow

This is the first time that virtual reality with accurate sound demonstrations has been used by an airport to help this many people understand the potential impact of changes to noise levels.  ”

Click here to find out more about sound demonstrations

Award Wins

Arup was selected as a joint winner for the Environmental infrastructure category at the ANC Awards.

Download the full list of winners here.