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The Design of Virtual Environments with particular reference to VRML

The uses of spatiality

Social interaction mediated by space

The spaces of the Art of Memory were designed in relation to the single observer, in many cases only existing inside the head of the individual. The issue of spaces as a place of mediation between one individual and another did not arise. Indeed at that time, architecture itself was not seen as the creation of spaces as such, but rather of structures. The idea of studying space and the way in which it is used socially had to wait until the twentieth century (see also Architecture as spatial design, page 39).

Influenced by the work of Whorf, Edmund Hall (1959, 1966) drew attention to the uses of space in mediating social interaction at both a biological and cultural level. His guiding principle can be summed up in his own words:

Culture hides much more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants.
Hall 1959 p30

The idea that different cultures interpret space and location in different ways is now widely accepted, even if the related notion that we actually perceive in different ways is by no means granted (discussed above, page 7). The design of virtual environments would ignore this at its peril.

In his attempt to reveal how we communicate by our behaviour, Hall identifies a number of 'primary message systems' which define the way a society works: interaction; association; subsistence, bisexuality; territoriality; temporality; learning, play, defence and exploitation (use of materials) (Hall 1959). Spatiality is fundamental to many of these, and all have a material aspect of some kind. These were the themes of Hall's second book, The Hidden Dimension (1966) which is still worth reading. Hall looks at distance regulation in animals (including humans), observing the constants across different societies and the culturally determined variations. He studies crowding and social behaviour in the light of what he defines as intimate distance, personal distance, social distance and public distance. Very unusually, he looks (though not in depth) at auditory space and olfactory space.

The single most important point about Hall s work is his emphasis on the silence of the 'silent language', and the hiddenness of the 'hidden dimension': in other words, our inability to readily see the biases and limitations of our own culture. This argues for investigating widely the possibilities which other cultures (or other views of our own) might offer, in our case in designing environments and objects for social interaction.

Spaces and power

It is not only in the work of anthropologists that the social uses of space are described. Novelists and other writers have made extensive use of spatial meaning, while postmodern geography has interesting things to say about the many shapes of space.

A gamut of different texts and images has made use of spatial organisation as a social and political metaphor. One of the most obvious is the mapping of social strata to physical levels. From Verne, through Wells to Fritz Lang s Metropolis and Blade-Runner there has been a recurrent use of the idea that a social layering of society can be represented by a physical layering of its people, usually of course with the lower orders beneath. However, some fictions have placed the upper classes in underground utopias, protected from climatic disaster, environmental pollution and so forth, while the lower orders are left above, outside on the exposed surface. Many of these are studied with wit and care by Williams, in Notes on the Underground (1990).

Williams work, like so much in this report, emphasises how spatial structures, be they built or excavated, real or fictional, cannot be considered independent of the messages which they convey. Giedion, quoted by Williams, claims that from Roman times onwards there was an urge to construct awe-inspiring space of great dimensions: the concept of a hollowed-out interior. This passion for sublime immeasurability unites spaces as diverse as the Pantheon, Piranesi s prisons , Coleridge s palace of Kubla Khan...

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea...

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice!

... to the deep space of Star Wars and many computer games.

Williams documents a largely ignored phenomenon, the fear and loathing in which underground space was held until the 19th Century, when such emotions were replaced by a fascination with the idea of subterranean life and society. Once underground however [in these fictional subterranean communities], society proves vulnerable to other catastrophes not natural disasters, in most cases, but social ones arising from humanity s inability to live harmoniously in an enclosed environment. So according to Williams, an important concomitant of the idea of social layers was the idea of transgression, when one group invades the space belonging to another. We can look at these politics of space in the familiar context of buildings.

The meaning of buildings

There is no a-spatial society and no a-social space... Society is organised in a way which can be described in the abstract but which, in the material world, is embedded in space.
Markus 1993 p13

Markus studies the effects that principles of social organisation have had on the design of actual buildings. In Buildings and Power (1993) are catalogued the asylum, prison, workhouse, mill and school, among others. Highly influential was the Panopticon: a building designed to provide an overseer with maximum views of all the activities under his control, for which its designer Jeremy Bentham claimed 157 advantages, including morals reformed , health preserved and industry invigorated .

The most important issues that Markus' work points to which we must consider in relation to Virtual Reality is that of control: what spaces do to people. As we cease to see the experience of VR as a solitary affair between the individual user and the space, and increasingly as a shared environment supported by networked computing, this becomes even more important. Most of the buildings which Markus documents have the form they do because in them someone is controlling someone else, even through the simple act of vision. In some buildings, many things can be seen simultaneously by all visitors, eg the Crystal Palace, while in others viewing is strictly limited, and perhaps unidirectional, as in the harem. One building is designed so that the inmates may see the instructor or preacher but not each other; another is designed so that all present may be viewed from a control position, but not themselves view. In case this seems a purely historical phenomenon, it is worth mentioning a recent project to create a pan-European electronic publishing project which, under the control of a newspaper magnate, was designed to give him a view of the various distributed editorial workstations around Europe, but not provide the editors themselves with a similar view (DIMPE1990). Who can see what and under what circumstances is a vital issue. Interest in this aspect of space seems only to have emerged in the nineteenth century, perhaps because it was only then that the concept of privacy, the unacceptability of people looking into other people s spaces, really emerged. For example, the horror in Henry James The Turn of the Screw is almost entirely based on inappropriate looking, with constant reminders that social and sexual propriety can be undermined simply by the act of looking itself. New permissions and prohibitions on seeing can be expected to emerge in Virtual Reality: it is too soon to say what form they may take.

What traversals are possible from one space to the adjoining spaces? For a simple matrix of nine rooms, many different topologies are possible. Markus adopts the Space Syntax methods of Hillier and Hanson (1984), which in themselves may prove useful in the evaluation and planning of virtual realities. These allow Markus to, for example, analyse a health centre to reveal that while the doctor needs to pass though only a small number of rooms to get from the staff entrance to his/her surgery, patients must pass through a minimum of six rooms go get to the surgery from the public entrance (Markus 1993 p13). Thus are the politics of the organisation embodied in its architecture: it is not for nothing that the word accessible has a metaphorical meaning as well as a literal one.

Of course even if spaces are physically connected, there may be prohibitions on who may use which routes. Girouard documents how in the Victorian country house an intricate system of backstairs and back corridors ensured that housemaids could get up to the bedrooms, dinner to the dining room and the butler or footman to the front door with the least possible chance of meeting the [owner s] family on the way (Girouard 1978 p285). At an earlier period it was normal for a personal servant to be housed in the same space as the close-stool: the servant, the contents of the close-stool, and anything that was undesirable or private could move or be moved up and down the backstairs, preferably to offices in the basement (ibid p138). What behaviours do these prohibitions and permissions promote? In a virtual reality any traversal may be forbidden to any user if we wish, but equally, the barrier created by something as apparently impenetrable as a wall may be permeable in a non-real world, if we wish it to be, as Carroll did for Alice when he allowed her to climb through into Looking Glass World.

What separations of people, and what confluences, do environments create? And what about the discreetness of the various virtual environments which are created, without thought for their interconnection? So far, VRML has hardly countenanced the issues of connecting one space to another, so that for example the initial opening of a site will always by default open it at the same entrance-point.

Some trajectories through buildings will have heavy traffic which moves rapidly, and otherwise will be almost empty, while others will be places specifically of relatively static congregation. A student project in the Centre for Electronic Arts was a commission to design a point-of-information system for a major museum, but it fairly soon became apparent that the client actually wanted a system that would tempt people to explore the furthest, neglected, parts of the museum. The last thing that was needed was a system which would encourage users to linger where the information machines were. Strategies for enticing users to explore neglected parts of a space have an obvious analogy in learning and learner-centred research.

The concept of affordances has been borrowed from Gibson s work on perception by design theorists, for example Krippendorf (1989). It refers to the way in which any designed artefact has (or should have) preferred readings . So, for example when we look at a simple tool like a spade we are almost involuntarily drawn to the idea that one part, say the handle, is for our hands to hold, that another, the blade, is for piercing and cutting, and so forth. If we design well, what we have made should speak its purposes and modes of operation. Architectural structures also have affordances. So for example, it is difficult to consider a Gothic cathedral without giving primacy to the experience of moving from the West door along the nave to the altar at the East, despite the fact that in theory the building could be appraised from any direction we wish. The application of the concept of affordances to the design of Virtual Environments is followed up below, page 52.

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