By Daniel Henry
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment the requirements for the degree of
Master of Science in Engineering
University of Washington
(Chairperson of Supervisory Committee)
to Offer Degree INTER-ENGINEERING
In presenting this thesis in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Master's degree at the University of Washington, I agree that the Library shall make its copies freely available for inspection. I further agree that extensive copying of this thesis is allowable only for scholarly purposes, consistent with "fair use" as prescribed in the U.S. Copyright Law. Any other reproduction for any purposes or by any means shall not be allowed without my written permission.
Over the last several years, professionals from many different fields have come to the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (H.I.T.L) to discover and learn about virtual environments. In general, they are impressed by their experiences and express the tremendous potential the tool has in their respective fields. But the potentials are always projected far in the future, and the tool remains just a concept. This is justifiable because the quality of the visual experience is so much less than what people are used to seeing; high definition television, breathtaking special cinematographic effects and photorealistic computer renderings. Instead, the models in virtual environments are very simple looking; they are made of small spaces, filled with simple or abstract looking objects of little color distinctions as seen through displays of noticeably low resolution and at an update rate which leaves much to be desired.
Clearly, for most applications, the requirements of precision have not been met yet with virtual interfaces as they exist today. However, there are a few domains where the relatively low level of the technology could be perfectly appropriate. In general, these are applications which require that the information be presented in symbolic or representational form. Having studied architecture, I knew that there are moments during the early part of the design process when conceptual decisions are made which require precisely the simple and representative nature available in existing virtual environments.
This was a marvelous discovery for me because I had found a viable use for virtual environments which could be immediately beneficial to architecture, my shared area of interest. It would be further beneficial to architecture in that the virtual interface equipment I would be evaluating at the H.I.T.L. happens to be relatively less expensive and more practical than other configurations such as the "Walkthrough" at the University of North Carolina. The set-up at the H.I.T.L. could be easily introduced into architectural firms because it takes up very little physical room (150 square feet) and it does not require expensive and space taking hardware devices (such as the treadmill device for simulating walking).
Now that the potential for using virtual environments in this architectural application is clear, it becomes important to verify that this tool succeeds in accurately representing space as intended. The purpose of this study is to verify that the perception of spaces is the same, in both simulated and real environment. It is hoped that the findings of this study will guide and accelerate the process by which the technology makes its way into the field of architecture.
I would like to express my sincere appreciation to my committee members, Dr. Tom Furness, Chairman, Technical Communication Professor Judy Ramey and Architecture Professor Bob Sasanoff. I would also like to extend my special thanks to H.I.T.Lab collaborator Marc Cygnus for his design of the interactive and rendering software, U.C.B Environmental Psychology Professor Kenneth Craik for his support in Environmental Perception, Human Factors Professor Woodrow Barfield and Dr. Brian Epps for their support in the design of experiment, and Karen Jones for her superb editing.
I want to thank the Henry Art Gallery and their entire staff for their input during the process and for their generosity in letting me use their gallery spaces for this study. Similarly, I would like to thank the professional designers, the graduate students in architecture and the architecture faculty for their participation. Their involvement in the development of virtual interfaces is an important condition for making sure that the tool will be beneficial to their professional community.
I would also like to thank all of the H.I.T.Lab staff and students and the numerous architecture students and faculty who were so generous in their support at various stages of this study.
And finally, I want to thank the one person who was most supportive and patient during this process, ma très chère épouse Sabine.
What makes virtual environments distinct from all other human-computer interfaces is that the human being has the illusion of being completely surrounded by spatial information. In these computer generated environments, the human being becomes a participant. The illusion is sufficiently compelling for participants to develop a sense of actually being present within the synthesized space. It makes the interpretation of the information and interaction with the environment particularly easy because it requires the same spatial perceptual skills as does the interpretation of real environments.
While there are many potential applications which could benefit from being presented in these environments, the simulation of architectural spaces is perhaps the most obvious one. Is satisfies a real need in the architectural community, that of improving the communication between the designer who relies on architectural representations, and the client whose best understanding of the design occurs only when being physically present within the space.
Designers' existing forms of spatial representation require intellectual abstraction and offer only limited views. Perspective renderings are fixed and pre-determine our choice of views. Models are three dimensional but they cannot be entered. Computer animations are dynamic but, as the path is pre-determined, they also restrict our views. In virtual environments, participants are free to look, move and see most closely to the way they would in the real environment. Virtual interfaces become the ultimate perspective drawing, the ultimate model, the ultimate computer animation for describing an architecture project.
But while simulations can be very effective in representing spaces, their misperception can result in erroneous judgments. Participants who misperceive the simulated space would probably be unhappily surprised at the outcome of the project. The entire process of discovering and evaluating a space with this simulation could be detrimental to its intent of improving the communication between the designer and the client.
It is therefore imperative we address these basic questions: just how well does this new tool represent architectural spaces? How valuable can our judgments of virtual spaces be in predicting our judgments of real spaces? Where are the weaknesses and strengths of this simulation tool?
The purpose of this study is to explore and determine the accuracy of virtual interfaces in simulating the basic characteristics of architectural spaces and to evaluate to what extent our perceptions of virtual and real spaces coincide. Hopefully, this study will help explain the nature of the differences, if any, in the perceptions of virtual and real spaces. These results will, for the design community, guide them in their use of this technology by highlighting its existing shortfalls and strengths. To the hardware and software developers, the same results will indicate which aspects of the technology need improvement most urgently.