History: TNO Soesterberg


TNO Soesterberg

In 1949, questions about nocturnal perception capacity led to the establishment of the Observation Working Group within the then National Defence Research Organisation TNO (RVO) under the leadership of Prof. Dr. M.A. Bouman. That was the starting point for research into night vision, depth vision, colour vision, glare, retinal burning, screens, and so on. Soon followed by the investigation of a second sense, the ear, in connection with hearing damage, hearing protection, noise control, and speech intelligibility of radio connections. Visuology and audiology formed the basis of what is nowadays called ergonomics, the study of people about their environment.
The working group was first housed in the Physics Laboratory of the University of Utrecht. From 1951, they rented part of the National Aerospace Centre’s Health Centre in Soesterberg. In 1956, a barrack was erected awaiting one’s building on the neighbouring Kampweg 5 site.

TNO at Soesterberg
TNO at Soesterberg (1956)

Institute for Perception (IZF)

The Working Group on Perception received the status of TNO Institute in 1956: The TNO Institute for Perception (IZF-TNO). In that year the first psychologist was employed. The research broadened into the processing of human information such as the interpretation of Morse signals, the assessment of aerial photographs, the perception of sonar signals and the accuracy of probability estimates.
Sensory physiology, ergonomics and neurophysiology were the most important areas of research at IZF. The research areas were expanded later with traffic behaviour (1969), thermo-physiology such as the heat and moisture balance of soldiers with protective clothing (1970), equilibrium of combat pilots and naval personnel (1986), cognitive psychology including mental stress (1986), training and education including simulation (1998), and group functioning (1998).

Optimisation of information processing by humans belonged to the expertise of the institute from the start. However, it was given a new dimension by advancing automation and innovative information and communication technology (ICT). Numerous assignments concerned the exchange of information between equipment and operator. The question was also what the human cognitive abilities were when designing tasks and procedures in a work situation with automatic systems and computers. What could people mentally manage? How much effort is involved? How long could they perform? What would they do in the event of a lack of time? How did they assess uncertainties? Ultimately the research was also about how a complex system functioned as a combination of operators, automatic systems and computers. These questions and the research belonged to the field of system ergonomics.

TNO Defence Research movie (1990) about thermo-physiology
TNO Defence Research movie (1990) about thermo-physiology

TNO-IZF was the most interdisciplinary part of the National Defence Research Organisation TNO and probably of the entire TNO. Among the researchers, psychologists, physicists, engineers and doctors could be found. The institute initially focused on sensory physiology and perception psychology research. One of the first assignments was about fatigue among radar personnel. The researchers traced the complaints back to the room illumination. A series of projects followed including the one about the design of a ship’s bridge.


In 1957, a 1.5-hectare site was purchased at the Kampweg, Soesterberg. It lasted until 1962 before the development of the set of requirements for a new building started. At the beginning of 1967, construction started. Mid-October 1968, the TNO workforce moved into the new building (Mfl 3.1; 2800 m2; 65 workplaces). The building included:

  • an optical aisle of 50 meters in length,
  • workshops for instrument making,
  • an independently based wing with
    • three ‘soft’ acoustic measurement rooms,
    • a measuring room with variable acoustics,
    • and a dead (anechoic) room.

    The air treatment installation for these audio measuring rooms had to meet stringent requirements; the TNO-TPD colleagues advised on this aspect.

On April 25, 1969, in the presence of HRH Prince Bernhard, the new building (Kampweg 5) was officially put into use by the State Secretary of Defence A.E.M. Duynstee. The opening operation consisted of pronouncing the numbers 0 to 9, which were subsequently made visible with a speech recognition device.

The new TNO building in Soesterberg (1968)
The new TNO building in Soesterberg (1968)


Opening of the new TNO-IZF building in 1969
Opening of the new TNO-IZF building in 1969


Ceramic on the outside walls (artist C. van Eck, Zeist)
Ceramic plateaus on the outside walls (artist C. van Eck, Zeist)

In 1988, the building was expanded with a new wing which again replaced a series of temporary barracks.

The new expansion in 1988
The new expansion in 1988

The renovation of the 1968 building part was completed in 2007.

Research into vehicle dynamics

From 1985 on, several major research projects were started on vehicle dynamics. All of these projects focused on the interaction between driver and vehicle and the consequences thereof for the control of the vehicle. The research focused on three points: maintaining control in difficult circumstances, the ergonomics of the car, and the influence of the road and the environment.
The tests were special because the IZF employees used computer simulations for the first time. This was possible by creating various controlled traffic situations with technical tools. By using a steering machine, the influence of the human driver could thus be eliminated. Wind machines were able to cause strong crosswinds. Rijkswaterstaat used the results to, for example, design safer road entranceways and exits. Later work concerned the interactions between road, vehicle and driver, and an ‘intelligent’ accelerator pedal that kept the driver at a safe speed adapted to traffic conditions via roadside equipment. 

TNO Defence Research movie (1990) about computer assisted driving without overloading the driver (ICARUS)
TNO Defence Research movie (1990) about computer-assisted driving without overloading the driver (ICARUS)

Spin-off research

Defence research produced the necessary spin-off which could lead to contract research for the civilian sector. Of all TNO laboratories, the IZF (later called TNO Human Factors (TM)) was the institute most involved in non-military research assignments. Between 1968 and 1988, non-military research assignments attributed to a quarter of the institute’s turnover. In the 1990s, this percentage even rose to almost forty per cent.
For example, research into the acoustic qualities of community rooms and concert halls was a spin-off from audiological research into the speech intelligibility of communication connections. The results of the ergonomic studies were also useful for civilian purposes, and this also applied to road safety research. The IZF collaborated with the Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV) and the TNO Institute for Road Transport. Almost all traffic signs and road markings along Dutch roads have been designed with the assistance of TNO-TM.

Aerial view of TNO Soesterberg
Aerial view of TNO Soesterberg

Research into ship bridges with simulations

One of the first ships that TNO-IZF analysed at the request of the Royal Netherlands Navy was a Friesland class hunter, the HNLMS Amsterdam. With this type of ship, the operating equipment was spread over the bridge. Moreover, the helmsman at a lower deck had no sight of the sea. He received his orders through a bridge spokesman. This was not conducive to accuracy and reaction speed as an experiment at sea demonstrated. At the institute, a mock-up of the bridge of the successor of the Friesland class, a frigate of the Van Speijk class, was built from chipboard, PVC and plexiglass. There was ample time to experiment with this mock-up.

During the experiments, however, there appeared to be two different opinions among the researchers. One group of researchers believed that the best results could be achieved with a so-called cockpit concept, with a concentrated navigation location. The other group saw more benefit in a more traditional arrangement with a dispersed set of instruments. A series of simulations finally showed that the cockpit concept was better.
This concept could not be realised immediately but was further adjusted in the desired direction with each subsequent type of Navy ship. In the case of the guide weapon frigates, for example, the radar equipment had to be housed in a separate, darkened room, because the light-weak monitors would otherwise not be readable. The communication officer and the card table could also be found on the bridge.
In the air defence and command frigates, which became operational around 2000, the cockpit structure was further elaborated. The map display and the radar installation were digitally connected. The situational display and the ship status information display became visible from a single position.

The research with the mock-ups was used again in a project for the most efficient possible layout of the space in a to-be-built Walrus class submarine. The very limited space had to be ergonomically arranged in such a way that collaboration became optimal.

IZF mock-up of the command centre of the Zwaardvis (source: Collection Netherlands Institute for Military History)
IZF mock-up of the command centre of the Zwaardvis (source: Collection Netherlands Institute for Military History)

The development of the bridge concept was not specifically restricted to the Navy. The results achieved were also applied to the design of merchant ships.

TNO Defence Research movie about the simulation of large transports with multiple barges (1990)
TNO Defence Research movie about the simulation of large transports with multiple barges (1990)

Human Factors Institute (TM)

In 1994, the Institute for Perception TNO changed its name to TNO Human Factors (TNO-TM). In those years, the institute had around 125 employees, including 60 to 65 academics. In 2005, the Health Center (NLRGC), a research department of the National Aerospace Laboratory (NLR), was housed at TNO-TM.
From 2005 to 2010, the official institute’s name was TNO Behaviour, Training and Performance as part of the TNO Defence and Security group of institutes. In practice, the name Human Factors Research Institute (HFRI) shortened later to Human Factors (HF) was used.


Research into human equilibrium and orientation

Initially, the investigation of human equilibrium and orientation was of interest to the Royal Army because of the transport of soldiers in closed vehicles. The Royal Netherlands Navy (seasickness) and the Air Force (disorientation of combat pilots) followed in this research. Motion sickness, seasickness and space sickness are motion diseases with nausea as the main symptom. For a long time, it was thought that all these diseases had to do with the shaking of the balance organ located in our middle ear. It was, however, not so straightforward.
The brain continuously wants to keep track of three things about the head or the body: does the body turn around a corner, does it move and how is the body oriented to gravity? Together with the balance organ, the eyes provide information that is necessary to keep us in a balanced situation. Then there is the sense of position, which provides information about the position of the limbs in addition to what the eyes and the balancing organ have already registered about the head’s position. If we just walk the brain can predict the expected movements of our body. However, it can go wrong as soon as we take a seat in a vehicle. Discrepancies may then arise between the information of eyes, balance organs, and sense of position. The eyes see the straight line of the road, but the balance organ signals a rise or fall, or a sharp turn. There are also information differences in an aircraft or spacecraft. The movements and thus the information differences are even greater on or in a ship. The brain gets confused by conflicting information. The result is nausea or worse.

The researchers also experimented with remedies against motion diseases. This is why André Kuipers wore a vibration vest designed by TNO during his space flight in 2004. There were little vibrators in it, much like the vibrating function of a cell phone. Kuipers had to perform many orientation tests weightless, blindfolded and with earplugs while alternately wearing and not wearing the vest. He also wore the vest for a few hours during his normal work aboard the spaceship. Kuipers also recorded his physical condition using a questionnaire. How did he feel, when did he get sick and how sick was he? A blood pressure test was also part of this study.

In 2006, a large simulator for complex movements was prepared, named Desdemona. It is a large 3D swivel chair with which weightlessness can be simulated. The device was designed by an Austrian company. Simply said, Desdemona is a kind of combination of a roller coaster, an electric bull and a centrifuge. The device makes it possible to rotate someone around an arbitrary axis without any limitation, to move up and down and also to spin. Desdemona makes research into flight and space disease, sea and simulator diseases possible. TNO collaborated on this research with TU Delft and the National Aerospace Laboratory (NLR).
In 2010, Desdemona was placed in a separate BV.

The next changes in name

Like the other special organisations of TNO, the National Defence Organisation TNO was abolished during the 1980 reorganisation of TNO and became TNO Defence Research.
On December 31, 2005, TNO decided to dissolve TNO’s institute structure (laboratories). TNO-TM was absorbed into the new TNO core area TNO Defence and Security (TNO DV).
On 1 January 2011, the TNO core area structure was abolished; TNO became a single entity. Since then, TNO location Soesterberg has performed part of the research for the TNO Defence, Safety and Security (DSS) unit.