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Andrew Park

Virtual neighbourhoods examine social issues

July 23, 2009

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Researcher Andrew Park (below right) is using videogame technology to study how people react to crime and fear in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and other troubled neighbourhoods. Park is a research associate at SFU’s Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies, where he works with criminologists Patricia and Paul Brantingham. He says virtual environments are useful for studying social issues, such as homelessness, fear of crime and senior citizen mobility.

Park creates his virtual environments by taking digital photos, manipulating them in Photoshop and mapping them onto 3-dimensional models created in an inexpensive game-development program. Participants navigate through the virtual environment using a Nintendo Wii controller and balance board.

He developed the technique while a graduate student in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology. So far, he has built virtual renditions of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Commercial Drive’s neighbourhoods. He is currently working on a model of Chinatown to study that neighbourhood’s walkability for senior citizens.

"One of the advantages of a virtual environment is that we can modify it easily," he says. "For example, we developed a second model of the neighbourhood that had more broken windows and more graffiti. You can’t do that with the real environment, but it’s easy to do in a virtual environment."

Park would like to incorporate interactive characters and objects into the models. "For our future studies, it would be great if people could actually go into the shops and buildings and talk to people," he says. He’d also like to interest local groups and governments in his research. He adds, "I want to see my research have a positive impact on society." www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsO0F5Buk50

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