This is not a 3D Space

12/08/2022 12:00 am

This is not a 3D Space

The toolkit of humanity’s narrative media grows with an ever-increasing frequency. It took millions of years for the language to evolve. Then hundreds of thousands of years for painting to be invented and tens of thousands more for writing, theater, and music to be born. After a few thousand years, the press arrived. In the last century or so, the acceleration in the development of technology has led to the emergence of a large number of new media: photography, newspapers, comics, radio, cinema, television, computers, and the internet, to name a few without a particular criterion. Each of the above has developed over time an original language that would allow exploiting its narrative potential fully.

In recent years, spatial computing technologies are coming to a sufficient maturity that will make immersive media a communicative space within everyone’s reach in a few years. History repeats itself and will call us to develop a narrative language that exploits immersive media’s full expressive possibilities.

It is a challenge that should not be taken lightly. We are talking about a medium utterly different from its digital predecessors for one single but fundamental reason: spatial computing and the other immersive technologies break the two-dimensional boundaries of the screen and place digital content in space. It is possible and necessary to move around a room, museum, or park to follow narrative development. Until now, movement in space was only simulated and did not really happen while enjoying digital content. Just as Magritte’s famous pipe was not a pipe, all the wondrous three-dimensional environments of the most frantic 3D graphics games are nothing but perspective deceptions that cause our minds to suspend disbelief and make us accept the narrative. That cute digital rabbit who acts as our guide through the hole never actually moves from the screen where we see him. That’s until now. With spatial computing, however, it actually moves into the environment around us.

This novelty is relevant because it makes possible, or at least much more effective, a whole range of previously unthinkable narratives. To explain this, let us try to use a concrete scenario. But first, it is necessary to return to Magritte’s pipe for a moment.

The process of communication between two or more people can take place at different levels of abstraction. At one extreme, two people are in the same room and have a specific third person in front of them about whom they speak by explicitly pointing to him or her. At the other extreme, the written word represents the highest possible level of graphic abstraction when the two talkers above use either the term “human being” or the conventional name of the person they are talking about. In between, there are many intermediate gradations, such as a photograph of the subject or a smiley that immediately allows a few signs to convey the message that a human being is being talked about and what his or her state of mind is. None of this is the actual human being. They are all representations, each particularly suited to solve specific communication problems.

Let’s analyze a concrete scenario: teaching how to light a museum hall properly.

  1. A text written on paper or digital format is the most suitable tool for transferring abstract ideas. We may want to communicate concepts such as “To be able to see in a hall, there must be at least one adequate light source,” or “Artificial lighting is more easily reproduced over time with accuracy than natural lighting.” In this case, nothing beats the written word for effectiveness.
  2. Suppose we have to explain how to connect a certain model of spotlights to the electrical system. In this case, a graphic diagram is the most effective tool.
  3. If we have to decide how to place light sources to achieve uniform lighting within a specific room, a set of photographs or videos showing the environment is the most effective and economical way to deliver the necessary information. They communicate to us the illusion of three dimensions, but we still remain in the realm of Flatland.
  4. Suppose now that a museater performance’s director wants to check that the lighting in a room does not annoy the guide or the audience in any way. One solution is to physically go to the hall in question and experience the expected movements of the guide and the audience in the first person. This is where immersive technologies and spatial computing come in: the director, with a virtual reality headset, will be able to walk inside a reproduction of the hall where simulated light sources have been placed and realize potential problems without having to travel maybe to another city. A new dimension of possible narrative scenarios opens up.

However, the new potentials come at a price. For example, movie editing or script cuts can no longer manage space-time. The risk of losing control of the narrative rhythm is very high, and boredom is always just around the corner. It would take teleportation, but it looks like we will have to wait a while longer for Star Trek technology to surface. Height is also a factor. Spatial storytelling at adult height could completely cut off children. Another example is dealing with environmental noise: the fine design of a spatial sound map could easily be compromised by an open window letting through the cackling of children playing in the park or by the dull noise of an air conditioner engine.

These are just a few examples of the unusual questions one must ask when working to create a compelling spatial narrative. There is still a long way to go to a mature language like that of film or theater, but at the same time, this is the kind of challenge that every innovation worker loves.