Friday, 13 November 2015

The future for virtual reality: part four

Wassily Kandinsky, Der Blaue Reiter Almanac cover
I can only imagine what Wassily Kandinsky or August Macke would have done with virtual reality. Their Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group pushed the psychological limits of colour, sound and shape, and it extended into performance art with The Yellow Sound which (because of the outbreak of the First World War) none of them ever got to see. Its premier was at the Guggenheim in 1972! I can also only imagine how it would have been received in 1914! I read the English translation of Der Blaue Reiter Almanac in the late sixties, but the link goes to the original German edition as  the translation does not appear on the web, and it suffers greatly with a machine translation.

You can find a definition on the web for almost any phrase, but you will not find one for "perceptual engineering", only various applications of that phrase. This was not always the case and in the early days of the WWW it was spoken about because of various ideas about what the web might be able to do. In  essence, certain wavelengths whether in sound or light can have predictable effects on human psychology and physiology. Besides scaring people, it was also discovered that the current media technology could not accomplish such things, anyway.

This is not exactly true. Granted, no computer monitor can deliver a precise, pre-determined wavelength to your eyes, and I am not sure how accurate the wavelength needs to be to deliver the desired effect, or the even the ranges that would be required to create a partial result. Media and design does use such things: restaurant owners who like people to eat quickly and not linger over coffee will use red to create agitation, and Marion Cooper, an interior designer who had worked on a number of important buildings in various places once told me that she had cured a client's chronic headaches by convincing her to change a red ceiling to a different colour. We hear of "a  green room" in a talk show waiting room because green is calming. Also, we have to consider that colour perception is not exactly the same for each person.

I needed to "push the envelope" when I had to come up with a colour design suite for some printed maps that were to be used by emergency personnel in worst-case scenario flood maps in the case of dam breaches. What was especially good about the project was the fact that experimentation was possible because my maps (and various other graphics) were used in presentations to different groups, including First Nations people and dam workers. At first, I thought that an easy way to show potential flood levels would be to overlay a coloured flood on mosaicked aerial photographs. I already knew that depicting a realistic colour for flood waters would be psychologically harmful and had settled on a nice "swimming-pool blue" . What harm could that do? It struck so much fear in the mind of one chief's wife that the band actually successfully lobbied to have the government extend the land of the reservation to include some fertile land above the high water level because the Chief's own land was on the fertile flood plain and his wife was insisting that he move elsewhere. Oops.

I also learned how presentation could have very different effects depending on the cultural psychology of the audience: with dam workers, an unintelligible map (of the kind I was contracted to replace because of a government order for the company to do so) the workers sat silently during the presentation, and had no questions afterward. The presenters, who were engineers, thought that the presentation was thus successful. Actually, the workers had not understood a thing, but were too embarrassed to make that known (each person thinking that it was only himself that did not get it). After I replaced the maps, the dam workers had many important observations and suggestions to make such as "But there is a locked gate on that road, and that could be big problem!"

In a First Nations presentation, members of the audience would suddenly rise from their seats and leave the room without making any comment about the earlier maps. It was imagined that they did not understand maps in general. Actually it was because the maps were just too awful for anyone to understand and the First Nations people were less subject to the embarrassment exhibited by the dam workers.

Designing the colours I needed was extremely difficult because I actually had to work blind: no colour monitor or printer could duplicate what I was creating. Process colours were inadequate for the task so I had to design in RGB (red, green and blue wavelengths combine to create colourless light). I had to use a specific set of equipment  at the print shop and run colour tests for everything. It would not work, for example, if the printers decided to use a different printer even if it was of the same model as the one I ran the tests on.

My most successful colour was the base green for the maps . It took a long time to perfect it and anyone who saw the colour exhibited the same reaction: their voices became softer in tone and calmer as they spoke. It was similar to the voice of someone talking to a baby or a very young child. This was the psychology required in people who had just been woken up and put in charge of the rapid evacuation of a population because of a dam breach. More lives would be saved just because of a colour.

Because of the immersive nature and multimedia possibilities of virtual reality, the medium could well make important advances in art, emergency training and  other types (shhh!) of perceptual engineering.

I will be back on Monday with more in this series. Have an expressionist weekend!

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