Five questions for… Owen Callahan, researcher user perceptions of the hyperloop

The European Hyperloop Center is located in the Northern Netherlands. All technological hyperloop concepts will soon be able to be tested and demonstrated in this test facility. Besides technological research, user experience is very important in the development of the hyperloop.

Owen Callahan, master’s student environmental psychology at the University of Groningen, researched the user perceptions of the hyperloop for the European Hyperloop Center. We asked him five questions about his research and findings.

Can you tell us about the research and your background, role and interest in the subject?

I am an environmental psychology master’s student at the University of Groningen. My research focuses on human perceptions, emotions, and acceptance of the hyperloop. My interest in the interaction of psychology and technology stems from my undergraduate studies at a technical school. Before moving to the Netherlands, I studied psychology and statistics at Virginia Tech, where I collaborated on numerous projects with other engineers. I became increasingly fascinated by public acceptance of new technology. This led me to begin my research on acceptance of the hyperloop in Groningen.

A difficult task with measuring acceptance was that we couldn’t evaluate user’s true perceptions of the hyperloop because it is still in the prototype phase of implementation. How do we replicate a real-life hyperloop experience? This led us to designing a virtual reality hyperloop, giving participants a visual representation of the inside of a capsule. The VR headset and wooden mock-up hyperloop would give our participants a simulated experience of the hyperloop that we could use to then measure acceptance. It isn’t perfect, but it is close to perfect, and that is ideal.

Why is the perception of future passengers on traveling in the hyperloop so important?

When you implement a new technology to society, there will always be some concern or uncertainty. It is human instinct to be hesitant towards something that is unfamiliar. Consider your first experience in an airplane, most would agree they experienced some level of fear or stress. I believe we can expect similar reactions when the hyperloop becomes available.

But, if we can measure and predict perceptions to some degree, we can understand what leads people to accept the hyperloop. And with this information, we can design a more user-friendly hyperloop.

What are the results of the research and what does this mean for the future of hyperloop?

We found that perceptions of safety were labeled as the most important predictor of repatronage (likelihood of travelling by hyperloop when it is available). Additionally, age influenced the distribution in most of our analyses. To elaborate, younger participants were far more likely to accept the hyperloop than our older participants. Other notable findings were that most participants requested that there would be more leg space, tables, and a rooftop illustrating a sky.

The impact of age in the analysis was not a surprise for me, it is common for young people to accept new technology faster than older individuals. I think the older populations should be a group of interest for future hyperloop research. It would certainly improve overall acceptance rates if older populations were more favorable towards the hyperloop.

What surprised you most during the research?

Before the study was implemented, I hypothesized that some people would feel some levels of claustrophobia while inside the hyperloop capsule, but this was not the case. Claustrophobia was the weakest factor in our analysis. Most, if not all participants did not feel any sensation of claustrophobia. This finding is reassuring to engineers that the dimensions (height and width) are sufficient. But these findings should be considered with caution due to our small sample size.

What will be done with the research results and will there be a follow-up study?

The results from the research will be used by hyperloop designers. Notable findings like requesting more leg space and tables will be considered while designing a more user-friendly hyperloop.

As of now, there is not a follow-up study planned. But I can say there is a growing interest in upgrading the VR experience study to be like a hyperloop ride rather than just visualizing the inside of the pod.