In the supermarket with your shopping list, you start grabbing everything you need — eggs, apples, cereal. There aren't all that many customers, which means you can get in and out quickly.
As you go to leave, someone stops you, and asks about your shopping experience. But as you answer, you become aware of the vast emptiness around you, punctuated with industrial speakers and lights.
This is no ordinary supermarket, in fact it's not a supermarket at all.
What is this strange version of reality and why is it here?
The answer is on the London-Essex border, and isn't quite as sinister as it sounds.
Recreating everyday life on a vast stage
Central London university UCL, with its world renowned research prowess, is in the business of improving people's experiences of living and working in London — and its PEARL building in Dagenham is there to facilitate positive change in the urban environment.
Such is the team's ability to create everyday reality within a vast empty space, it is easy to forget you're participating in an experiment.
PEARL stands for Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory and (along with its predecessor PAMELA) is a truly unique space which enables researchers to study how humans interact with their environment. This facilitates improvements to city infrastructure, many of which you may well have experienced. 'Platform humps' on the Victoria line? Thameslink train-platform interface? Tactile paving on Exhibition Road? Accessible bus stop kerb designs in London and Brighton? PEARL road tested all of it.
Double-deckers and passenger planes
The architecture of the building is vastly beautiful, all 4,000 square meters of it. Externally, the rusty orange of the weathered steel façade is visually tactile — the organically shaped cut outs are there to aid accessibility for those with sensory conditions. In the middle of the steel frontage is the entrance to the main space, tall enough to fit a double decker bus through (for the simple reason that sometimes happens).
Out of sight from the ground, the entire roof is tiled with photovoltaic cells to generate solar power, contributing in part to the net-zero carbon rating, a first for UCL. The outdoor space is currently used as a car park, however rumour has it that a full sized passenger plane will move in for future experiments.
Why so dark?
Inside the experimental area of the building, PEARL is keeping the paint industry in business; every inch of the 10-meter-high walls and 100-meter-long ceiling slathered in pure black. Staff even have permission to turn off fire exit signs to create pitch black conditions when required.
The people at PEARL are experts in creating immersive experiences of everyday situations, with meticulous care and attention paid to every sensory aspect of the set up. This includes the visual experience which is, in part, recreated by hundreds of horticultural lights suspended at the perfect height to facilitate total immersion in the situation they are manufacturing, while physically remaining out of the peripheral vision of the participants. (These participants by the way, are often public volunteers).
Specialist lighting emits 12 colours, which enables recreation of the total human visual light spectrum, and those black walls allow this colossal space to feel small by absorbing any stray light external to the experimental area. Anything here is possible.
Recreating real life
Today it's a supermarket, but tomorrow PEARL is hosting e-scooter sound trials, and next month it might be a full sized train platform and carriage. A few months ago it became a corner of Victoria Park, complete with a growing tree. There are no limits to the number of scenarios the team can recreate.
The PEARL team act as research consultants, liaising with those presenting the problem and discussing it with an in-house team of specialists to create the most appropriate experimental environment and provide any relevant human monitoring equipment (heart rate monitors, EEG, eye tracking devices etc).
Technical staff have theatre backgrounds and now spend their time pushing the equipment at PEARL to its absolute limits — sometimes beyond what the manufacturer can be certain is possible — they are true innovators.
Want to recreate a train platform? Sure thing, the construction team can build that, along with a full sized train if you want. And why stop there? The lighting crew can create the daylight for 12.42pm on platform 13 at King's Cross on a Monday in September if needed, and the sound specialists can record and play back the exact background noise in such a way that you will believe you're there.
For the sound geeks among you, the building has a reverberation time (time it takes for a sound to die away) of one second — unheard of in a building this size.
Every aspect of the building has been carefully considered. The floor is adjustable and was designed to feel as solid as the external pavement under your feet despite being suspended a meter or so off of the floor. Fog and smoke is available in abundance, and although they are yet to employ a 'smell specialist', aromas can indeed be adjusted accordingly.
The desire to make a palpable difference in the lives of everyday Londoners is innate within everyone who works at PEARL. Since opening in 2021, the institution has already cemented itself in the heart of the community in Dagenham. Collaboration with nearby schools provides a stepping stone into media careers for students, and operating an open house policy provides local residents with a way to discuss issues they have encountered as they exist within the urban environment of London.
Find out more on the UCL PEARL website.