Depth Is Not Visual
Lettie still thinks of my smartphone as an object. The moment I look away she swipes it from the table, turns the slick rectangle over in her little hands, and unceremoniously pops the corner in her mouth, speaker first. I am alerted by her gurgle of glee, and intervene with a curt, “Not a toy!”
I plant her on the floor beside a pile of blocks and turn back to my work. She throws up her arms and howls in distress, mourning the loss of the Object of Consequence.
“Come see! Mommy is working on a Revit model.” I lift her to my lap, and pan around the courtyard space, but she resolutely ignores the screen and instead attempts to commandeer the mouse in my hand.
“Alright, you can try.” She takes the mouse and chucks it to the floor, pumping her legs in joy at the crash of plastic meets tile. I bend to retrieve the abused mouse and return to find that she has recaptured my phone. Before I can stop her, she introduces it to the wall with all her might. The phone’s screen lights up as it lands where the mouse was moments before.
Lettie is intrigued, and I am relieved.
There is an easy solution to the battle we wage. I could stick her in front of a TV, and go back to my work as her eyes glaze over and her wandering hands are stilled by the flashing colors and artificial sounds. Instead, I return her to the blocks. She flops down in disgust and plays absentmindedly with the edge of the rug, staring at the light fixture in the ceiling. Her eyes wander, and her body is not far behind when she discovers a discarded ball of canary trace. It rustles and crunches and expands and contracts. So much possibility. Truce.
The way children develop reveals the importance of the spacial to human experience. The mayhem of Lettie’s exploration is a result of a long evolution that emphasizes the connection between the tactile and the visual, and strengthens the significance of actions and their effects.
As Lettie roams the room she is learning about distance, size and consequence:
Hard objects make sharp noises, soft ones are quiet.
The phone that was here is now over there.
How much effort is required to get to it?
Can my finger fit in that gap?
Up on the chair is high, and the ceiling is far, and the rug is close, and the walls are made of layers.
I cannot go over but I can go through.
Going through is a squeeze.
Virtual reality fails to imitate the tactile, revelatory and spontaneous aspects of space that so engage an infant. These elements are also crucial to the enjoyment and function of architecture for adults. To truly experience a walk through the city, sight must be subjugated to the tactile, and depth must have consequence. Turning the corner is important when it results in an unexpected interaction. A bench warmed in the sun invites rest.
Actions that have real life consequences are more rewarding than those that occur in a virtual realm. The structures that surround us are important because of the decisions they inspire, the purposes they facilitate, the alternate possibilities they create.
Much of the satisfaction derived from the way we live in our spaces is the result of the effort required to transform them. Can technology ever augment the satisfaction of settling into an armchair that you dragged across the room to prop open the balcony door and let in the spring air?
Heavy reliance on virtual reality technologies threatens to disconnect us from a crucial spacial language that has accompanied our species for centuries. When the virtual is dictated and the real is neglected, then the definition of imagination is lost.
The paper ball is a sun in Lettie’s hands. A tambourine. A cracker. The paint chips lying at the foot of the wall she will eat tomorrow.