Past Awardee

The Examination of Data Derived from Perceptual Psychology Studies in a Virtual Reality Environment (CAVE) for Application to Architectural Design

Joy Malnar

College: Fine and Applied Arts
Award year: 2000-2001

I will examine the data from extant psychological experiments in visual perception, specifically eye movement, attention, visual search and haptic orientation, and translate their findings into a three-dimensional virtual reality environment. The intention is to examine behavioral responses to perceptual stimuli in situations more closely approximating the real world than experimental laboratory conditions provide, and to translate the (modified) findings into terminology suitable to architectural design. While experimental psychologists are concerned about eliminating confounding issues, architects by necessity establish order amidst confounding issues. Human beings are constantly presented with an array of sensory data that they need to selectively react to. It is increasingly clear that architects are as unaware of the common modes of human reaction to sensory stimuli as people are of the design conventions commonly used by architects. It is an architect's responsibility to provide not only physically amenable conditions for clients, but also conditions that provide emotionally secure, fully sensory environments. This can be done by knowledgeably adjusting those conventions to reality.

In their article, "Perceptual Organization and Attention," Daniel Kahneman and Avishai Henik pose an important question: "If attention selects a stimulus, what is the stimulus that it selects?" To an architect this is an intriguing question as this could be considered a description of the design task; to determine how people will perceive and react to the facts (expressed as stimuli) of the environment, and design accordingly. Kahneman and Henik point out: "Attention can be focused narrowly on a single unit, or else it can be shared among several objects. To the degree that an object is attended, however, all its aspects and distinctive elements receive attention. An irrelevant element of an attended object will therefore attract -- and waste -- its share of attention. (In Perceptual Organization, edited by Kubovy and Pomerantz, 1981)." A good designer should regard this "waste" as indicative of poor design, functionally and aesthetically.

The research on visual attention and selection should be of interest to architects, but rarely do architects read the literature. In the first place, the conveyed information is customarily diagrammatic in nature, rather than fully visual. Drawings and photographs of actual buildings are superior to diagrammed, abstract information. As they are two-dimensional, however, they still fail to recreate the angles of view, scale, and sensations of the three-dimensional world. Architects learn by experiencing and analyzing precedents, usually in the form of built projects, but learning by error is costly. In the second place, experiments in psychology concentrate on clearly-defined, narrowly-structured issues, while complexity is design's natural condition. Architectural design must organize a vast array of requirements, physical and psychological. Better architectural design will result from the use of reliable, fully integrated psychological data by designers. By developing a method of examining, integrating, and conveying this information in a usable three-dimensional format, there is potential for an improved built environment. I propose to accomplish this using the room-sized, 3D video environment known as the CAVE, which has precisely this capability.