Monday, November 27, 2006

"walking in the city", images, wayfinding, and perception

Geoff Manaugh at Worldchanging writes an article "Walking the in the City" about Shanghai revising a vast amount of its street names and signs, and an architecture exhibition in London recommending the city standardize its sign-system to help people get walking.

I've been interested in wayfinding for a long time. I highly recommend the book "Wayfinding in Architecture" by Romedi Passini. I also highly recommend Kevin Lynch's "The Image of the City" in regard to thinking about how people compose cognitive maps of cities through experience.

I agree that mystery in a city is beautiful. There is nothing I love more than to be dropped in a new city by way of train or bus and then to find my way and whereabouts. And even if one has a map, the process of aligning the physical and real landscape with the coordinates and presumed organization of the map is an exciting experience.

Organizing a wayfinding system as a means to get people out into the streets is a good idea, with a kind and conscious social motive.

The discussion of wayfinding should expand to include new media mapping technologies, such as Google Maps and Google Earth, both of which, through use, augment the process by which we psychologically perceive the world.

Has anyone explored a city by way of Google Maps and Google Earth and then attempted to explore the same city in the real by way of 'memory'? It is a fascinating experience. I did it this past August with San Jose, California, a city I've always been geographically close to but quite far away from in my knowledge of its composition. I must admit, I was afraid at first that my exposure to mapping software might have corrupted my ability to wander into the unknown... but I was wrong, it simply added another layer to the experience... instead, I was confronted with assumptions based on an aerial and plan-aligned view. An interesting part of the experience was then how my mind -- with a rendering of the city from an aerial photograph -- imagined what it would be like to zoom-out from where I was standing in the urban fabric and see the city from above. Eventually, though, I find myself wandering 'off-map' and into areas not drawn to by visual cues in the aerial photography.

It is also fascinating to revisit locales discovered in the real world in mapping software. I was in the little village of Vytina in Greece a little over a year ago and hadn't known the place existed until my visit. A wonderous experience it is to then find the location in Google Earth, become lost beyond the known landmark, and then lost a-wandering into the periphery of one's memory.

A similar affect occurs when reading a city first through photographic images, artworks, and literature depicting particular views. One is exposed to an image of a place and is then placed in a position to position oneself within the image when experiencing the site in reality.

After having studied in Firenze, Italia last fall, and then returning home, my memories of my apartment and the streets of Firenze are very real in my mind. I can literally navigate and explore my kitchen via thoughts. But I have noticed an interesting situation when I situate my mind in the space: when passing my eyes across the counter top, the table, the floor, the ceiling, the cabinets, opening the refrigerator and seeing my cheese, and then turning to look out the window, at the moment of looking right out of the window, the experiential memory snaps to a photograph I had taken of the view out of the window. From the fluid and exploratory memory space to the rigid and flat image-rendered space. It is as if I am in a 3D environment and a life-size 2D image -- immersive in its own right -- has been stuck right before me, stitched to the ethers of air holding it in place.

It will be quite fascinating then to watch Photosynth develop as a tool for seeing the world. Photosynth compiles batches of digital photography (they could be collated from a site like Flickr) and then organizes them into a 3D environment where the exact coordinates of objects in each image are aligned with the coordinates of the environment; thus allowing one to explore a 3D world composed of 2D images! One also has the option to turn on identifiers which show exactly where within the space each photo was taken. Developed by Microsoft Live Labs and the University of Washington, Photosynth aspires to blend the real and virtual to a point of tangible convergence.