Isabella Pasqualini is an architect (ETHZ) with a PhD in architecture and neuroscience (EPFL). She explores the mutual and intimate relationship between body and space using immersive and interactive multimedia. Her empirical investigations show that immersive environments are experienced individually and that it is high time that we deal with the ethical questions of virtual reality.
Interview: Irena Sgier
You investigate the relationship between the body and space. How do you do that?
I am an architect, so I am influenced by the human sciences. However, I have also spent ten years studying the relationship between body and space from the neurocognitive perspective. My work in the laboratory is a combination of cognitive neuroscience and imaging.
What, specifically, does that mean?
I investigate the way in which space affects bodily self-consciousness. This does not involve a metaphorical level, but rather motor, haptic and visual aspects. I examine how these perceptions are processed and how a sense of self and the experience of our own bodies and emotions are generated. Technology plays an important role.
What is novel about it?
I work in interdisciplinary teams that include researchers from the engineering sciences, neuro-psychology, biology, and robotics. The innovative aspect I contribute is the environment, given that the experience of the wider physical environment has scarcely been investigated.
The way in which we address these subjects in the laboratory is also novel. However, the questions we are pursuing are as old as time: architecture has been concerned with the way in which humans embody the environment for about the last 2000 years. This ancient knowledge is still productive.
Does it mean that in a high-tech laboratory, you are working with a 2000-year-old conceptual model?
Yes, many of those old questions really are current. For example, Vitruvius developed a conceptual model that relates buildings to the human body. He described a link between parts of buildings and body parts and asked for an embodied architectonic implementation. According to his model, perception is conveyed to the brain via physical particles through the sense of touch or sight. I find it fascinating that Vitruvius decided to build his conceptual model upon the philosophy of Democritus. He wasn’t drawn to Plato and Aristotle.
Interestingly, physics began to reach back to the same model in the 20th century. We architects have a 2000-year history with this philosophy and a culture that we would do well to revisit. For example, embodiment is now a topic of interest in robotics.
Architecture is something very real, of course – but you now mainly work with virtual space. What differentiates the virtual from the physical space?
Virtual space is, in the first instance, visual. It is somewhat flatter than the physical space because you cannot access it to the same extent through your whole body. Embodiment is less strong. When virtual space is purely visual, it can be extremely passive. The more sensory modalities you add, the more interactive, three-dimensional and thus immersive the space. If I reach in, and I can see my hand inside the space, or if I turn my head, and I see the panorama around me, the environment begins to be immersive. This is a completely different type of interface from a simple 2D screen, where spatial surfaces are only created by the rotation of the eyes.
What do we mean by immersion?
This is a technological term. In virtual reality, you find two relevant notions: presence and immersion. Presence is the effect of the medium, e.g. a book: How deeply can I delve inside a book; how authentically do I experience the pictorial descriptions in the book? In virtual reality, presence or the sense of reality in the environment can be assessed as a consequence of the immersion. Technology enables immersion and is always three-dimensional, in real time, and thus embodied. The more specific the way in which the physical sensation is substituted by the technology and embedded into the virtual events, the more immersive the medium – and the more pronounced the illusion of presence in the virtual space.
So virtual reality produces a stronger presence, or sense of reality, than a book?
No, presence is not necessarily weaker in a book. Almost all of us have, at one time or another, become so immersed in a book that our actual surroundings have completely disappeared, and we’ve lost awareness of them. In the virtual world, the same effect is generated by immersive technologies. As far as the user entering the virtual reality is concerned, immersion is a passive process, an effect created by the technology, to which the user reacts. Immersion in the virtual world is therefore generated technologically. Nevertheless, the presence that I feel is based on the same cognitive processes as the presence experienced with a book. Presence therefore simply means “I’m in this place”, while immersion relates to the way in which the technology enables me to do this.
What does this mean for your research?
Immersion allows us to reach into the body and evoke specific emotions for the environment. In principle, this provides you with surreal levels of perception that cannot be experienced in the physical reality. In addition, feelings can be modulated and manipulated. Immersive media make it possible for us to intervene invasively in the body.
I assume that you also test such experiments on yourself. What experiences have you had through virtual reality?
Yes, for over ten years I have tested the various technologies in the laboratory on myself, and I’ve worked with many study participants. My main experience is that each one of us perceives the virtual realm a bit differently. The experiments at the lab need to be prepared very carefully so we can decide what data to collect. The dedicated technology has to be developed specifically for the experiments. Scientific experiments, of course, must be reproducible, nevertheless in the laboratory we discover the variability between people, and how individually we all react to environmental stimuli. One person might tend to see the space, where another would see objects, or even see very little, but rather “feel” space. Because virtual space is experienced so differently, it seems useful to customize this medium towards the users and their individual requirements.
In which ways do you assess how people perceive the space? Above all, can it be explained?
There are various ways in which this can be done. On the phenomenological level, we can assess experience by allowing the participants to tell what has happened to them. This also allows you to recognize whether they have become engaged with the experiment. We also use a variety of questionnaires and indeed measure the emotions or the position in which the participants have located themselves. However, direct behavioural measurements are even more important.
In my experiments, I need to know, for instance, how strongly a participant perceives the depth of the room in which she is currently immersed. This can be tested through a simple estimation task by asking her: “Imagine that you’re throwing a ball at the wall in front of you and tell me when the ball has reached the target”. The longer her reaction time, the greater the depth of the space perceived during that experimental condition. Neurological imaging techniques are used afterwards.
Do the notions of reality indeed change when you’re moving in virtual space, or does the virtual simply augment the horizon of the real?
I think this depends very heavily on the users, and on their expectations and anxieties. Of course, things are experienced in a way that you would not expect in physical reality, and some feelings are modified. Most probably the limits between the virtual and physical worlds will shift in the future. There are people who expect great freedoms to be created by virtual reality, who believe that everything will be possible in the virtual world one day, and we will be able to do everything there that we are not allowed to do here. Of course, that isn’t true. The virtual is perceived as real, and it is all real to our brains. For our own good, we need to be careful how we expose ourselves to virtual reality. The laboratory experiments are, for example, approved by an ethics committee.
So, are the boundaries of the real also the limits of the virtual reality?
Yes, I personally believe that this is the case. All the same, the boundaries of what is possible are definitely shifting.
What benefits does the technology that you use as a researcher have outside the laboratory?
Human beings have certain basic requirements with regard to their living environment, including stability. For now, this still puts the direct use of virtual technology for living environments into question. However, some specific applications are available to help us understand how home or urban spaces function, and how we might make qualitative improvements to these spaces. Since space is a scarce resource, we certainly need to better understand how we can densify the existing spaces so that they work for everybody as a living environment, and not only from the point of view of the investors, architects, and planners. In two to three years, it will be possible to incorporate the emotional features of various groups of people into the decision-making process for construction, via virtual reality.
The most radical application, however, would be to augment the domestic or urban space through virtual reality in such a way that it would no longer be possible to differentiate what was physical and what virtual. These augmented spaces would be customized individually to suit each user.
Is that desirable?
I think that this development is already in progress and, in some cases, it has already been put into practice. Through scientific research, we can now also deal with the visionary and ethical aspects because virtual reality is perceived as real.
Are these questions really debated?
In the technological realm, yes, certainly. In the humanities, unfortunately, not so much, because the application of these technologies is not really perceived there as an area of competence.
What potential would you attest to virtual reality in educational or learning settings?
Most of our experience is undoubtedly in flight simulation and in connection with cars. Virtual technology partly originates from these sectors. Emotional and ethical aspects also play an important role in these areas, e.g. in connection with safety. When the technology becomes less expensive and everybody has access to a tablet, it’s easy to imagine how, for example, virtual reality could be used for professional training purposes, tailored to meet the requirements of specific target groups, such as younger or older people, or towards experienced or less experienced people. We could then also better understand which mistakes people make on the cognitive level. In education, virtual reality makes everywhere sense, where embodied processes can support learning.
Is there anything that you personally find particularly important in relation to education and learning?
Yes: that you can make mistakes and accept mistakes. That’s often impossible in performance-oriented, competitive societies. However, the result of eliminating mistakes is that we fail to learn. The technology sector is interesting in this respect because many of the projects developed there can never be implemented in practice. The balance appears similar in architectural competitions. I believe it’s enormously important for us to accept mistakes and to allow occasional failures.
You aren’t just at home in virtual worlds; as an architect, you have also taught and built in a very wide variety of different countries, including the Netherlands and Angola. What did you take away from these experiences?
That there are many different ways of building, communicating and living in this world. When you come back, you always learn something new about Switzerland. Anyways, you always learn more when you come back than while you’re out and about on your journey.
We’re sitting here in front of the main building of the University of Zurich. What kind of building is that?
It is very modern. The atrium is probably one of the finest spaces in this city. The interior space is more important than the building around it, and in the atrium, you are immersed in a completely different world. The building also embodies a privilege. It represents the time and the space to think and to dedicate yourself to education. This building also says to me that education is regarded as a privilege in our society.
Websites of Isabella Pasqualini