For this free writing exercise I’m a bit hesitant on which direction to go. I’m torn between writing about what I know about spatial cognition and what I want to get out of this exercise. I know that I’m not supposed to write with anything in mind, but rather just let my mind wander. Which ironically is in complete opposition to what the crux of my thesis is about, which is to say that spatial cognition revolves around the notion that you know where you are in your space. Not only which way is up and which is down, left, right, north, south etc. but where you actually are in your physical environment. For example, I’m in my living room facing East, and if I wanted to go to my garage I would know exactly which way to face myself and start walking, which door to open and what turns to make. If you were in my living room, and I asked you to walk to my garage, you may not know where to turn or where to go. This is spatial cognition. You would know where you were, but not necessarily where you were in your space and how that applies to going somewhere else.
So it’s a bit ironic then that I’m not sure where to go with this exercise. I suppose that the free writing, or just letting your mind wander is supposed to take me to a place that I may not of thought to look for ideas. Again, I think this is ironic, considering my subject.
One example that come immediately to mind are when you park your car in a multi-tiered parking deck, or perhaps at a large theme park, or airport, where there are not only thousands of parking spots, but there may also be many levels or parking areas. We all know how challenging it can be to get back to your car. Who hasn’t walked around, pressing the car lock or unlock on our key fob, or maybe even trying to set the panic alarm off so that we can hear and locate our car. Our spatial cognition is limited because of unfamiliarity with the surroundings, and surroundings that are similar, or confusing. There are various ways that signs help us, either color coded (you parked on the green level), or with numbers (you parked on level 4). Further indicators may be available to us as well, such as sections within the green level (you parked on the green level, in section G5). These are a tremendous help but can still pose basic positioning problems once we get to our car (how do I get out of here?). The problem isn’t limited to just the parking deck. To further illustrate this example, suppose that you drive to a hospital, wind your way through the parking deck and then have to follow a series of corridors, elevators, lefts and right turns, various reception decks or even different building to find a specific location within the hospital to visit a friend. This is where spatial cognition is valuable. Once in the room, would you know how to get back to your car and back out of the parking deck? It can be confusing to say the least. This can be particularly difficult if we are in an unfamiliar city. To add another twist to the story, lets remove the parking deck part of the story and suppose that you took a train or sub way to the hospital. The entirety of your travel to the hospital may have been underground in a foreign city. This further diminishes our spatial cognition when we can’t see where we were turning or how far we were traveling while we were en route. Once in the hospital room, if I asked you to point in the direction of your house or apartment, would you know in which direction to start walking?
The simple answer, would be, “sure, let me just get out my phone and punch in my address”. With GPS on nearly every phone these days, it takes the strain off of us, and puts it on the phone or device. This ability has pretty much changed the way in which we expect to get around. It has changed our habits and our expectations on how we navigate our world. In some instances, our mobile devices have completely taken on the role of our brains spatial cognition for us.
Is it possible for wayfinding systems in the physical space (directional signs, parking deck indicators, etc.) to borrow concepts or technology from our smart phones and grant us this same level of awareness? In addition to pointing the way to the green level parking deck, can wayfinding systems adapt to give us clues or tell us all together where we are, where we’ve been (in case we need to go back) and where we should go? Can these signs work on an individual basis so that the experience is unique to individuals rather than a generic sign with an arrow letting us know that the elevator is to the left?
Really, perhaps the more important question is, does it matter? I would think that yes, it does matter. The way we navigate is much more spontaneous than most current wayfinding systems allow. For example, once half way to our destination (we’ll stick with the hospital illustration), suppose we forgot a gift for the person that we were going to visit, and had to turn back. Short of backtracking and remembering the route we took through the maze of elevators, corridors and parking decks, can wayfinding systems in the physical space adapt to our movements and give us that overall awareness of our location, in much the same way our phones do when we take a turn. Can physical world wayfinding systems reroute us to the gift shop or provide us with short cuts so that we add waypoints (like the cafeteria – in the case that we were hungry and wanted a sandwich before we met our recovering friend).
What would these systems look like, and how would they react and change depending on our individual situations? Suppose while we were visiting our friend, it started to rain outside, so the original route that we took to get to the hospital room that required us to walk outside was no longer the best route back to our car? Could a physical world system provide us a better (perhaps dryer) route back to our car without us having to dart through the rain?
The way that we interact with our location isn’t static and I don’t think that wayfinding systems should be static either, especially since for all intents and purposes, we carry around computers in our pockets with GPS functions that can help us determine where we are in our space and what that means to us. Not only do we know where North, South, East and West are, we know which direction to take, what stair case or elevator to step into, even in an unfamiliar location depending on our changing needs.