• Description of the thesis subject


« The experience of nature in virtual urban environments: analyses and applications in the design of sustainable urban projects ».

CNRS thesis offer for the NATURVI project


“Renaturing” urban environments reflects the ambition of transforming our cities into milieus that are more resilient from an environmental point of view and more human from the perspective of healthcare, quality of life and well-being of populations. Several forms of “elements of nature” thus regain a place in contemporary urban projects in response to the ecological, social and economic challenges of urban renewal. With Nature-Based Solutions (NBS), installations such as urban micro-forests, available water bodies or insect hotels integrate public space and change the perception of citizens’ relation to nature, creating new experiences of “urban nature”.

The thesis aims to determine how virtual reality can help understand the experiences of urban nature in the implementation of an urban development project. Recently, technologies of virtual or augmented reality have been used to assess the perception of natural environments compared to urban environments [1, 2, 3, 4]. However, these examples have methodological limits (division between “natural” and “urban”, use of 360° video) that this thesis will overcome. We aim to analyse the integration between natural and urban elements, to implement virtual devices that will allow the easy modification of the types of configurations studied and to distance ourselves from existing situations.

The future PhD student will be tasked with the development of immersive environments integrating different elements of nature within urban environments. They will carry out experiences on the perception of these complex environments by immersed participants who are interacting with these virtual environments. In order to apprehend every dimension that determines the participants’ experience, its assessment will be done with a set of explicit (questionnaires, interviews) and implicit (oculometry, physiological responses) measures of cognition, including emotions. Depending on the candidate’s competences, this experience could be modelled with advanced statistical approaches.

The main scientific challenges lie both in the modelling of the qualifiers of the participants’ subjective perception in “naturalized” urban environment and in the transposing of assessment methodologies for the in-situ human experience in virtual environments. Another aspect of the research deals with the forms of expression and representation of non-visual aspects of natural elements, in particular their climate dimensions.

  • Work environment

The candidate selected will be welcomed by the CRENAU team of the AAU Laboratory at the Graduate School of Architecture of Nantes. The CRENAU team specialises in the analysis of architectural and urban ambiances and develops works dealing with contemporary climate challenges. It promotes interdisciplinary approaches combining humanities and social sciences, engineering sciences and project sciences. It provides the project with its skills in urban analysis, microclimate analysis, visualization of data and virtual reality, as well as the tools and platforms necessary for experiments (the COOLSCAPES climate trolley and the CORAULIS virtual reality platform).

The PhD student will also benefit from the supervision of the PACCE team members at the LS2N (Laboratoire des Sciences du Numérique de Nantes, UMR 6004), which specialises in the analysis of the human factor within the design of systems (https://www.ls2n.fr/equipe/pacce/). As a multidisciplinary team (psychology, HMI, design engineering), PACCE develops works in the field of modelling cognitive processes in humans, of perception and of cognition within virtual environment and user-centred design. It provides the project with specific methodological skills, both in terms of measures (oculometry, physiological markers, etc.) and data modelling.

Lastly, the PhD student will benefit from the supervision of the LPPL members (Laboratoire de Psychologie des Pays de la Loire, EA 4638, https://lppl.univ-nantes.fr/), which focuses on the relations between psychological processes and contexts. LPPL develops expertise regarding the analysis of the relation of individuals and their environment, in particular using virtual reality, oculometry devices and physiological measures of emotions. The team gives the project expertise on fine evaluations of cognitive and emotional regulations, decision-making and executive functions.

The supervision of the thesis will be carried out by members of these three teams. It will be determined depending on the selected candidate.

  • Additional information

The thesis is funded by the Mission pour les Initiatives Transverses et Interdisciplinaires (MITI) of CNRS as part of the 80 PRIME 2021 programme. It belongs to the NATURVI interdisciplinary project that aims to understand the virtual experience of nature in the implementation of an urban development project.

At its core interdisciplinary, NATURVI lies at the crossroads between three contemporary research fields. The first one deals with the city and urban development in the adaptation to climate change, in particular regarding the role of elements of nature in the design of urban forms and ambiances. The second field focuses on psychology, in particular on the role of natural elements in the perception of environmental quality, distribution of attention and movements, connected to subjective well-being, stress reduction and the recovery of psychological functions. The third field deals with virtual and augmented reality environments and their ability to account for the experience of nature in the city. Between these three fields, the thesis aims to understand in an interdisciplinary way the perceptions and the behaviour experienced by citizens in the face of natural elements.

NATURVI thus offers members of different scientific communities the opportunity to collaborate around the key contemporary challenges that are those of sustainable urban development. The research relies on a dual theoretical and experimental approach. The theoretical side relies on a research seminar regarding the implementation of common conceptual and methodological foundations between the partners. The experimental approach, carried with this doctoral thesis as part of the project, will deal with immersive, real and virtual perspectives.

  • Background

Considering the interdisciplinary aspect of the research, several educational backgrounds can be considered for the selected candidate:

– Master 2 or computer engineering degree with competences in virtual reality and a strong interest for the humanities, social sciences and the environment.

– Master 2 in architecture or urban development with a strong interest for digital sciences, virtual reality and human experiments.

– Master 2 in environmental psychology or cognitive sciences with a strong interest for digital sciences, virtual reality and environmental and urban challenges.

  • Required skills

– Advanced scientific skills in at least one of the thesis’ fields: virtual reality, environmental psychology, urban development.

– Interest and skills in experimental work and methodological discipline.

– Ability to work autonomously, organizational skills.

– Oral and written communication skills.

– Command of oral and written English (for presentations, interviews and publications).

Skills in programming and data analysis (for example Unity, Unreal Engine, Python, Matlab, R, etc.) are desired for this position. Previous experiments in the fields of virtual reality, oculometry or physiological measures are an asset. Skills in 3D modelling are not required but would be an asset.

  • Application

In line with the CNRS’ commitment in the Human Resources Strategy for Researchers (HRS4R), candidates must apply on the platform of the CNRS Portail Emploi to the exclusion of all others.


The application should include:

–  A cover letter (5,000 to 7,000 characters) highlighting the adequateness of the candidate’s profile with the thesis subject,

– A synthetic personal CV

Pre-selected candidates will be invited to on-site or remote interviews.

The thesis should start in September or October 2021.

References mentioned:

[1] Vigier T, Siret D, Moreau G, Lescop L. (2013). Sensitive suggestion and perception of climatic effects in virtual urban environments. the ACM Symposium, Aug 2013, Dublin, France. pp.126 – 140, doi://10.1145/2492494.2501896

[2] Mostajeran F, Krzikawski J, Steinicke F et al. (2021). Effects of exposure to immersive videos and photo slideshows of forest and urban environments. Sci Rep 11, 3994. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-83277-y

[3] Browning MHEM, Mimnaugh KJ, van Riper CJ, Laurent HK and LaValle SM. (2020). Can Simulated Nature Support Mental Health? Comparing Short, Single-Doses of 360-Degree Nature Videos in Virtual Reality With the Outdoors. Front. Psychol. 10:2667. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02667

[4] Calogiuri G, Litleskare S, Fagerheim KA, Rydgren TL, Brambilla E and Thurston M. (2018). Experiencing Nature through Immersive Virtual Environments: Environmental Perceptions, Physical Engagement, and Affective Responses during a Simulated Nature Walk. Front. Psychol. 8:2321. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02321