How well does virtual content work in citizen participation processes?

How can the new digital tools such as virtual reality and augmented reality be integrated into participation processes?

Virtual worlds: Modern visualisation methods in citizen participation

In addition to the basic rules of communication, it is important in citizen dialogue to communicate complex issues in a comprehensible way so that all participants can subsequently discuss them at eye level. Visualisations accelerate the process of comprehensibility in citizen communication. The range of visualisations extends from classic methods such as renderings (2D/3D images), architectural models and animated films to innovative approaches such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE). But which visualisation technique is the tool of choice, and what can visualisations currently achieve in public participation?

Visualisations in use - from classic to innovative

Planning projects as well as information and dialogue events on infrastructure projects live on language on the one hand. On the other hand, there are the images, i.e. visualisation of the planned project, to make it tangible. Classic visualisation techniques are renderings, previously programmed or recorded data sets that are converted into two- or three-dimensional images. Route search areas or cable runs can be easily represented with renderings. Architectural models and guided animation films go a step further and give a more realistic picture, for example to grasp the dimension of a new building. Real-time simulations and info points already offer the viewer significantly more room for manoeuvre, as the user can move freely in space and navigate in a self-determined manner.

Virtual & Augmented Reality - what's behind it?

Finally, virtual reality offers a real immersion in a virtual world. Closed VR glasses or the so-called Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, or "CAVE" for short, are used here. This is a room for projecting a three-dimensional illusionary world of reality. This enables, for example, a virtual helicopter flight over an offshore converter station. While virtual reality completely hides the real world so that the user can immerse himself in the virtual environment, augmented reality still retains reality and merely adds virtual elements. Augmented reality technology expands human perception in real time through texts, videos, images or three-dimensional animations. For example, newly planned overhead line pylons can be superimposed on the concrete localities of the project and thus made tangible. In this way, the dimension of the construction project is depicted realistically. In general, the use of the various visualisation methods depends on the phase and the requirements of the procedure.

Visualisations in practice - what goes down well?

The research project VisB+ of the University of Hohenheim, together with the Frauenhofer Institute, dealt with the topic of visualisation of construction projects in public participation. It has been shown that the most important requirements for visualisations are the credibility, authenticity and realism of the techniques shown. In second place are real-time control and interactivity, then immersion (possibility of immersion) and finally abstraction. The research group found that the classic visualisation methods proved to be less credible. Renderings, which are currently still the most frequently used in participation formats, scored the worst. The main criticism of the use of renderings is the lack of possibility to change perspectives. The image dictates the viewer's perspective, which contributes to a more negative evaluation.

Virtual worlds - what can Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality do?

The Virtual Reality CAVE technique was judged by the research project to be the most realistic and understandable method. This innovative technique ensures a very effective and quick entry into the visualised project; no prior technical knowledge is necessary. Moreover, virtual reality has the highest degree of immersion, i.e. it enables a real immersion in construction projects and other large-scale projects. With real planning data as a basis, virtual methods also offer a high degree of credibility and acceptance. The use of augmented reality, on the other hand, also has a clear advantage: using an augmented reality tool is conceivably easy with a tablet or mobile phone, as they are very low-threshold to operate. In addition, AR tools are also suitable for use with a larger number of users. Another advantage is that the user is not isolated from the environment; he/she can enter the dialogue with other participants at any time. In this way, information can be experienced and brought to life without prior knowledge.

Our 4 tips for visualisation techniques in public participation

  1. Determine the goals: Which visualisation is used depends on many factors. What phase is the project in? What stage of planning should be depicted? What are the stakeholders' expectations? This needs to be clarified first.
  2. Identify needs: The use of visualisations is particularly important for controversial points. Comprehensible communication is particularly important in the approval phase, in order to meet the needs of as many stakeholder groups as possible.
  3. Sound out the target group: For example, the VR CAVE method is suitable as a special tool for small groups of stakeholders, for example to present a building project in an understandable way to the local council.
  4. Costs versus benefits: Despite all the advantages of virtual tools, there is also a major disadvantage: the cost factor for programming corresponding applications currently still often makes the project sponsor refrain from using elaborate virtual methods.

Conclusion: The importance and frequency of using virtual tools will continue to increase in the future. Even today, the targeted integration of these tools into a professional participation process is very effective and profitable, not only for large projects, and can enable us to experience the world of tomorrow today.

Further information on the topic of visualisation methods is provided by the VisB+ research project of the University of Hohenheim and the Frauenhofer Institute.

The accompanying brochure "Leitfaden für die Bürgerbeteiligung: Visualising Building Projects" is available at the following link:

Forschung_Bauprojekte_Visualisieren_Nr._86.pdf (

Communicating complex issues to stakeholders in a comprehensible way so that all participants can discuss them at eye level:

Visualisations in particular accelerate the process of comprehensibility in citizen communication.