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Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli in Interior Environments

The average American spends a staggering 93% of their life indoors[1] whilst Europeans spend 85-90% of our time indoors[2]. These interior environments where we live, work, study, or relax are all too often static spaces, devoid of the rich sensory stimuli that we find in nature.

However, there is evidence that introducing Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli (NRSS) into them could enhance our wellbeing. NRSS comes from objects or materials in consistent yet unpredictable motion. These types of stimuli are found in abundance in nature for example the sway of grasses or leaves in a breeze, or the ripples on water. Even brief exposure to NRSS have been shown to have positive effects on a human’s heart rate, blood pressure and sympathetic nervous system activity.[3] As a result, they are often found in doctors and dentists waiting rooms in the form of fish tank aquariums.

diffusion choir


Project by Sosolimited, Hypersonic, and Plebian Design

NRSS and Attention Restoration Theory

NRSS can also have beneficial influence on productivity levels and stress reduction; according to Kaplan and Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory[1] the brain has limited capacity to focus on a specific task and exposure to natural environments (and the stimuli with them) encourages a brief redirection in focus, allowing us to replenish our capacity for directed attention. The movement found within NRSS, when caught in our peripheral vision can cause us to look up, allowing our eyes to relax after a prolonged period of shortened focal depth – reducing muscle fatigue in the eyes that can lead to eye strains and headaches.[2]

While NRSS is all too often lacking in built environments, it can be emulated through a range of Biophilic Design considerations. Mimicking the non-rhythmic motion found in rural environments can allow us to experience their health and wellbeing benefits in the urban environment.

This can be done at various scales, according to budget, from the inclusion of planting, or lightweight fabrics, alongside windows and other ventilated areas to using undulating reflective surfaces on walls, ceilings or floors that will enable dynamic light reflections (with their calming benefits) to occur as viewers pass by.

Skyinside boardroom


Non-rhythmic sensory stimuli in the wild

At Oliver Heath Design, we have been investigating how we can more readily implement the subtle benefits of Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli – and are intrigued by how advances in technology are allowing us to incorporate it in ever more sophisticated ways. Here are four more ambitious examples of approaches to incorporating NRSS in the built environment:


Sur-Natures, an interactive installation by Miguel Chevalier, projects a virtual garden onto the walls within Charles de Gaulle airport which grows and changes in real time every day. Technology within the installation responds to the motion of passersby, causing the plants to bend and sway.

The responsive nature of the installation draws the eye and allows passengers a period of mental respite from the less dynamic airport spaces, encouraging distraction and mental restoration within an otherwise stressful travelling environment.

Biomed Reality

A spectacular example of mechanically generated NRSS can be found in ‘Diffusion Choir’ a kinetic sculpture commissioned by Biomed Realty for its offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts US. Made up of 400 folding elements (resembling umbrellas) which open and close based on a ‘flocking algorithm’, the sculpture mimics the murmerations of a flock of birds and never exactly repeats itself.

Installed in an impressive atrium, the sculpture works in conjunction with glass screens and an open plan office environment which allows motion into the peripheral vision of the employees. This helps to provide a visual break for those within the space as well as introducing the calming influence of NRSS into the working environment.

Sky Factory

Sky Factory creates realistic illusions of nature, through the insertion of digital ‘virtual skylights’.[1] These products create moving sky vistas in sequences several hours long, which allow people to experience the natural motion of clouds in an interior environment. Clouds drifting across the sky – a prime example of constant motion that is always changing. It has been suggested that such gentle, whimsical movements can be psychologically associated with safety or comfort and furthermore, may facilitate creative thought.[2]

Ledisvet Dynamic Light Panels

Working at a similar scale, Ledisvet Dynamic Light Panels introduce NRSS into a variety of environments via programable lighting animations. The panels work in collaboration with an app that contains predefined animations, including several based specifically on natural imagery and motion. The gentle, dynamic patterns of motion created by the animations project a calming influence into the surrounding environment, helping to boost user wellbeing.


Digital technology has been utilized in a to spectacular fashion by Obscura Digital for the lobby of Salesforce’s flagship office in San Francisco; transforming the space into an impressive hyperreal environment using a huge LED screen wall which plays high resolution films of the Redwood National Park and a stunning computer generated waterfall, providing employees and visitors exposure to natural analogues and imagery.

Production Digitalarti by Miguel Chevalier

Although nothing can compare to first-hand “direct” experiences of the living environment, increasing technological developments are going to make it possible to replicate nature and gain the benefits of biophilic design and specifically NRSS in places where it does not or cannot exist. We are really excited to see what will come out in the next few years and think technology offers a low maintenance nature connection for those whose lifestyles are increasingly removed from the natural environment.

How do you feel about using technology to connect with the living environment? Have you seen any examples of this being done successfully or unsuccessfully? We’re interested to hear your thoughts.


[1] Klepeis, N et al. (2001) The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 11, 231–252.

[2] The European Commission Report (200)3

[3] Li, Q. (2010). Effect of Forest Bathing Trips on Human Immune Function. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15 (1), 9-17.

 Kahn, Jr. P.H., B. Friedman, B. Gill, J. Hagman, R.L. Severson, N.G. Freier, E.N. Feldman, S. Carrere, & A. Stolyar (2008). A Plasma Display Window? The Shifting Baseline Problem in a Technology Mediated Natural World. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28 (1), 192-199

Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11, 201–230.

[4] Kaplan, R. Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

[5] (accessed 18.11.16)

[6] (as accessed 17.11.16)

[7] Katcher, A.; Wilkins,G. 1993. Dialogue with animals: Its nature and culture. In: Kellert, S.R.; Wilson, E.O., eds. The biophilia hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press


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