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The Design of Virtual Environments with particular reference to VRML

The uses of spatiality

Mnemonic uses of space

There is a historical use of space previously known only to a small group of specialist scholars but more recently influencing a number of designers of information media. This is the Art of Memory, a spatial mnemonic system. Yates classic book on the subject (1966) provides a fascinating in-depth account, but we can summarise the main points of interest here.

The assumption of the Art of Memory is that we are predisposed to remember things in the context of place, even where there is no significant connection between the thing remembered and the place where it is located, so that recalling the space is a powerful trigger to the recall of the associated information.

According to Cicero's De Oratore, the poet Simonides invented the Art when called upon to name the unrecognisable victims of a physical disaster the demolition of a building full of dignitaries from which Simonides himself escaped through the intervention of the gods. He was able to name the victims by recalling where they had been seated.

Such spatial mnemonic techniques were used subsequently during the Middle Ages (it has been argued by Yates and others that the Cathedrals were organised as aids to remembering the scriptures) and later, in the Renaissance, by such as Giulio Camillo (1480-1544), Ramon Lull (1235-1316, his works revived in the 15th Century), Giordano Bruno (1548-1592?), Peter Ramus (1515-1572) and Robert Fludd.

Many practitioners of the Art combined what we would now regard as magical nonsense with what we would now regard as fruitful cognitive theories. As with the present-day memory performer on stage or television, the techniques were guarded secretively in order to enhance their impressiveness. This obfuscation tended to lead to the denigration of the theories with the rise of scientific rationalism, which proposed an alternative model (see below), in the 17th Century.

The basic method of the Art is to imagine a space, perhaps schematic but usually architectural, which contains the various things to be remembered. Specific ideas can be contained within other more general ideas, by virtue of being in niches within rooms. Rooms may be badged by the statue of a saint, for example, representing some important principle. Some advocates of the Art devoted much energy to devising structures which in themselves had special meanings, so that the shapes of room and the ways in which they are connected take on semantic importance a three-dimensional semantic net, perhaps, but made memorable by being given form as an imaginable physical building.

Importantly for any consideration of VR is the fact that, rather than simply imagining these architectural structures, most of the leading mnemonists had plans to actually build them! Camillo built a memory theatre described thus:

They say that this man has constructed a certain amphitheatre, a work of wonderful skill, into which whoever is admitted as a spectator will be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero.

Viglius Zuichemus, writing to Erasmus, 1532, quoted Yates 1966, p135

The Art seems to make use of two or three aspects of spatiality:

  1. Recalling a view of a space is easier than recalling abstract symbols (such as abstract concepts or pieces of language). Concreteness produces memorability.
  2. Spatial constructions, for example a building or the human body, have a coherence and logic to them which can be used mnemonically to connect one idea to another. Interestingly, the Art begins to decay at the time that taxonomies become a prominent tool for thought (Foucault 1974 p125 passim). In a taxonomy, for example a zoological family tree, the structure arises out of the subject matter, rather than as in the Art of Memory being arbitrary.

    One possible advantage of architectural models of conceptual structures is that the omission of any part leaves an obvious 'gap' in the structure. For something organically random (like a semantic net) there is little help for the user who forgets some major chunk of the structure (a uniformly branching coral is not structurally odd if part of it is missing), whereas when information is mapped to a finite, structured environment, omissions are obvious.

    Against this we must set the disadvantage that our information structures are now routinely too complex to be mapped onto memorable architectural spaces.

  3. We can imagine ourselves taking a route through a structure, as a way of converting a 3D environment into a linear sequence. In principle, it should be possible to take different tours of the same space of ideas. The proposers of memory theatres, whether real or imagined, thought of every possible trick to embed their ideas in the user s memory, including the use of colour to distinguish one part from another, the use of distinctive columns rather than a uniform design so that one area will not be confused with another, the use of magic numbers presumably their emotional charge made them more memorable, even though the reasons they were used were directly occult!

In practical terms, what has the Art of Memory to offer us in the design of virtual environments? A number of the debates which polarised academic communities in the Renaissance are still of relevance today:

Imaginary or real structures

Should the user imagine a building which was purely ideal, or use the remembrance of an actual building? We could represent ideas and the connections between them using abstract models, or we could project information structures onto reconstructions of real structures. Advantages of a familiar structure would seem to include not only the greater likelihood of users remembering the information when they leave, but also the corollary advantage of them knowing how to find their way about the place when they are in the Virtual Environment. Of course we do not need a universal principle: each Virtual Environment can be built according to need.

Memorable imagery

Images must be lively, active, striking, charged with emotional affects so that they may pass through the door of the storehouse of memory, says Giordano Bruno in 1591 (Yates 1966 p286). Nothing in the intervening 400 years leads us to believe that Bruno was wrong, and if we are to construct Virtual Environments with educational purposes in mind, we need to ask ourselves what would constitute the lively, active, striking and emotionally charged equivalents for our own time.

Arbitrary or semantic structures

In 1584 a row broke out between the followers of Ramus and of Bruno. With hindsight, we can see that the Ramists would eventually triumph. They advocated a 'dialectical' system in which each broad category of knowledge was repeatedly subdivided the form of spatial organisation familiar to us as a binary tree. Ramus held that this structure absorbed the art of memory into that of logic. It is an ancestor of the taxonomic approach which we now in many ways take for granted, the basis for example of the Dewey system for organising knowledge in libraries. As a Protestant, Ramus had a strong antipathy for representational images, but still valued the spatial laying out of schema as a graphical framework for his dialectical system. He particularly abjured the use of imagination, and the assistance to memory provided by striking and stimulating images which had been a mainstay of his opponents' Art.

Special shapes for greater effect; symbolic architectures

Much of the literature of the Art concentrates on the literal shapes of knowledge, in some cases architectures buildable within the technology of their time, in other cases ideal structures involving for example intermeshing circles, or even the human body. Even after the obsession of some adherents with magic numbers, planetary harmony etc is stripped away, it is clear that these forerunners of ours had given a very great deal of thought to the shape(s) of knowledge. They would have been intrigued, probably amused, to see the virtual museum of the Dorling Kindersley eye-witness series of encyclopaedic CD-ROMs. In some cases, their own systems (for example Bruno's) were intended to house all knowledge.

Memory perhaps enhanced by memorable spaces based on some of the ideas of the Art has a great deal to offer in terms of assisting learners to find information. For example, experiments have been undertaken using 3D spatial organisation to assist users in forming cognitive maps of information (Shum 1990). By improving their abilities of recall, users may be helped both to recall information when not using the system, and in refinding information in the system on future occasions. The whole subject of wayfinding in real environments and the role of memory in the process has been discussed by Passini (1992).

It is interesting to note that memory has become almost an occult skill in our own education system. For example, the idea of rote learning is deeply unfashionable, but perhaps the deprecation of discredited methods for instilling memory skills has accidentally spilled over into a deprecation of memory as such. Books on memory are regarded with embarrassment by most academics and are felt not to be part of serious scholarship. Such an attitude would have astonished most previous centuries, and maybe we should begin to question it.

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