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Unveiling connection: UC Berkeley psychology experiment transforms movie visual effects, urban development

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The experiment involved constructing a physical model of a Marin County neighborhood and taking participants through the roads via a controlled camera.


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MAY 07, 2023

The technology and methods developed in a 1970s environmental psychology experiment conducted at the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Lab has imparted profound effects on both urban design and filmmaking.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, campus urban design professor Donald Appleyard and campus psychology professor Kenneth Craik began the experiment in 1972. Their study aimed to “bring scientific rigor to public planning simulations” and determine whether simulations could generate realistic psychological responses, according to a news release from the National Science Foundation.

​​The experiment involved constructing a physical model of a neighborhood in Marin County and recording a driver’s view of a model car navigating through the neighborhood, according to the release. A 16mm film camera controlled by a state-of-the-art computer captured the simulations, allowing for repeatable motions.

Participants were randomly assigned one of four groups — one was driven through the actual environment, the second viewed a color film of a drive, the third viewed the color simulation film and the fourth viewed a black and white version of the simulation film — and asked questions about their experience.

Among participants unfamiliar with the area, responses from each group were similar. This equivalence was limited to first-time encounters, however, as familiarity with the neighborhoods influenced people’s previous experiences, according to Peter Bosselmann, professor at the College of Environmental Design, who joined the Environmental Simulation Laboratory in 1976 and became its director in 1982.

Later, three members of the lab team — John Dykstra, Alvah Miller and Jerry Jeffress —  became founding members of Industrial Light & Magic, a visual effects division of Lucasfilm, according to the release.

The trio employed the same principles from the psychology study, building the computer-controlled “Dykstraflex Camera.” This innovation, along with other lab techniques and equipment, revolutionized the visual effects in Star Wars in 1977. Their pioneering work earned them the 1978 Academy Scientific and Engineering Award.

In the meantime, the lab continued to focus on simulation as a medium for effective communication of proposed projects’ impacts on decision-makers and the public.

“Projects have to be simulated in order to show them to decision makers or the public so they get a good sense of what is being proposed,” Bosselmann said. “They can then make their decisions accordingly.”

The simulations the lab created played a crucial role in presenting non-existent projects to stakeholders, Bosselmann noted. The simulations proved influential in municipal decisions, including the waterfront development in Berkeley and the high-rise development in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he said.

With the rapid advancement of visual computation and image processing techniques in the late 1990s, Bosselmann said, computer simulation gained greater prominence in the lab’s work.

However, he also noted that computer-generated models, particularly with the advent of advanced artificial intelligence, might be manipulated with biases.

To ensure accuracy, Bosselmann said, politicians often visited Berkeley to witness animated and modeled simulations before making decisions on proposals.

“When they saw a simulation of it, they went back and said: ‘yeah, I’m convinced that’s not what we should do,’” Bosselmann said.

After Bosselmann retired in 2017, the lab loaned the remaining model of San Francisco and essential equipment to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco for public display. The museum has collaborated with public libraries to display simulations, Bosselmann noted.

While Bosselmann believes that the Environmental Simulation Lab will not be resurrected in its original form, he noted the importance of informed planning and decision-making lives on.

Contact Winnie Lau at 


MAY 07, 2023