PhD student Pierre-François Gerard reports on the International Conference on Spatial Cognition, which took place in Rome on 6-11 September 2015.
It felt good to leave the already cold London weather early this September and land in Roma’s Mediterranean climate for a whole week of International Conference on Spatial Cognition. What a city, what a history! My daytime was packed with talks and lectures, each giving a different take on situated cognition. My nights were dedicated to applying all those theories along hours of walking and navigating this old city filled with memories.
The conference venue was an interesting building to start with. Situated in an old neighbourhood east of Termini Station, part of Sapienza – Università di Roma, the faculty of psychology was barely recognisable from the street. However, once you got inside, the space was quite remarkable. There was this wide and long mildly inclined ramp punctuated by little steps distributing students and conference participants alike to the four levels of rooms and auditorium. At the back, there was a large court yard to share thoughts and eat lunch in the sunlight.
Keynote speakers – Scientific Method
The main keynotes were given on the top floor. Arrived only on Tuesday afternoon, I missed Monday keynote lecture with Kevin O’Regan: Constructing space: A theoretical basis for how naive artificial or biological agents can construct spatial notions . A couple of early friends informed me that although O’Regan is a quite prolific author, this presentation wasn’t that great. There is plenty to catch up online anyway. On Tuesday was Vittorio Gallese important keynote on Embodied Simulation and the Space around us. He explained the main concept of inter- and extra-personal space used by a lot of authors that week.
The first keynote I attended was quite enlightening on the scientific methodology developed by psychologists. Yan Bao, associate professor from Peking University, explained step by step what is “attention” and how does it work through human’s eyes. To do so, she scientifically answered one very specific question by doing one very specific experiment. From there, a new question arise that lead to the next experiment that will bring a new answer and suggest the following question, and so forth. She presented a cascade of 12 studies based on a cueing task, mainly to demonstrate the effect of “Inhibition of Return”; the ecological significance of this mechanism being that it favours novelty and curiosity.
The next keynote, Inter-subjective relations in lived space and instituted space was given by Shaun Gallagher, an interesting fellow American philosopher. He is actually working with astronauts, trying to understand their feelings in space travel using Virtual Reality. Where it really pumped me up was when he started to talk about how architecture shapes our experience and how we can modulate the way we are experiencing things by modifying our environment. He also coined a powerful concept which is the “affordance landscape”. I will follow him closely.
My favourite lecture was given by Sergei Gepshtein on Solid field of sensitivity: Perceptual structure of immersive space. He works with two well known people, Alex Mc Dowel and Greg Lynn. Alex Mc Dowel was the art producer behind the Minority Report interface and many other film productions. Greg Lynn represent the avant garde of the digital turn in architecture in the nineties with the concept of folding and topological geometry. After a quick reminder of what is the “perspective” we’ve been living by since the 15th century (thanks to Alberti’s “The Pictura”), Gepshtein went on to explain how he is working to change this paradigm; to get past the restriction of this portable window. Their project uses different techniques to go from cinema to immersion by creating maps that can be transferred in solid space: sensory mapping, multi modal design, adaptive smart environment, mixed realities are just a few of the concept mentioned during this really exciting lecture.
Talks – eclectic topics
Every day started with three simultaneous symposium. A lot to choose, from a large panel of research. A variety of fields were represented: psychology, neuroscience, computer science, architecture, social studies and philosophy, to name just the main ones.
Starting from a philosophical point of view to explain “space concept”, T. Holichka defined what is a virtual place at the confluence of possible worlds and fictional worlds. The importance of the concept of affordances (Warren 1984) and places were then discussed by Jonietz & Timpf from an GIS (Geographic Information System) perspective. After that, some phenomenology were involved by Nitsche to analyse impressionist paintings with the notion of distancing instead of understanding. The main question really was: “How do we perceive space?” which brought the notion of situated knowledge.
The next talk centred on a potential new field of research which I am relating to – Computing Embodied Architecture. Prof. E. Ackerman’s talk on developing more appropriate self-directed learning space for children definitely pulled some strings. Then came Paloma G. Rojas, student from MIT, with a methodical approach applying computational model to analyse our perception of space; best hint so far directly related to my own research.
Wednesday’s symposium on Body & Space, explored the concept of peripersonal space and relative perception through the lens of Virtual Reality (VR). You can find more about this research by searching for the CS-IVR Lab, the Immersive Virtual Reality Laboratory and for Mirage Lab, the Multi Sensory Illusions Laboratory.
Thursday’s theme was Navigation. Researchers presented studies exploring how blind people, children, men and women were using different mechanism to find their way around.
On Friday, we returned to the theme of Embodied Space in Architecture with a neuroscience twist. Peri and extra-personal space were still leading the dance backed up with neurophysiological correlations. One specially engaging presentation on central and peripheral vision by Rooney, brought a striking point on how vision drives two different type of embodiment: projected and extended. The last talk I followed, before having to catch the train, was given by Van der Ham, on human navigation in real and virtual environments, and the role of locomotion. The experiment she presented showed the closest settings to mine: participants have to remember their way inside a 3D virtual environment with landmark images hanging on the the wall.
To summarise, an eclectic field of research was represented at this conference. A variety of presentations were showing a large range of disciplines to study the relation between humans and their surroundings and how we are perceiving our body into space. Embodiment, inter and extra -personal space, affordances and places are the main concepts embedded in the body of those researches. VR is used throughout those studies. It is a fantastic tool of research that allows to approach real world situations yet offering a wide range of control, flexibility and scalability on the designed VEs.
Posters – People from all over the world
My poster made a good impression. It gave me the opportunity to start a few conversations with different people from all over the world: Columbian, Swedish, Turkish, French and a couple of Italians. Each had their own take on my project, so being here really brought me a lot of value and new perspectives on what I am working on.
Overall, I had a really great experience. From a scientific point of view, it made me realised how narrow the field of research has to be to conduct valid case studies that answer one specific question at a time. Psychology research definitely set definitely the measure on that matter, by processing one variable in a very controlled environment. However, a new trend is to take research much closer to real life situations. It also brings a lot more data to manage. That is where computation power become really handy for two mains reasons: on one hand, computational models help to simulate systems and behaviours, on the other hand, visualisation engine and Virtual Reality help simulate close to real life environments to work with.
The interdisciplinarity of research also aroused my attention – psychologists trying to make sense of architects’ approach about space perception and embodiment, computer scientists questioning behavioural methodology, or even psychologists between themselves – these were all common discussions during the conference. Only a few presentations were really cross-disciplinary; this is a very interesting subject way easier to debate than to put into real practice.
Most of all, it is the excitement and the enthusiasm of those dozen of researchers from every corner of the earth, supported by the strong foundations of Romans walls and history, that I will carry along my own pursuit of adding a stone to existing knowledge.
Pierre-François Gerard is studying for a PhD in Computer Science