Our first guest blog is by Laure De Cock, who Sam met at the 12th International Space Syntax Symposium in Beijing in 2019. She has kindly agreed to tell us about her work on internal way finding and navigation; so here she is in her own words…..

First, let me introduce myself. I’m Laure, and I am a PhD student in the most beautiful city of Belgium: Ghent (no really, forget Bruges and Brussels, you should all visit Ghent!). I started my PhD two years ago and in those years I gained numerous valuable skills, such as drinking a lot of coffee, hiding from students and deciphering late-night e-mails sent by my promotor. By now, my friends and parents have realized that my research will not save the world, but it can help to make it a better place for all of us. Especially in my field, which is geography, that is all we ever want.

This is Ghent! Come and visit us…

I started studying geography and geomatics when I was 18. Seven years later I’m still studying it and by now I have learned that geography doesn’t really exist. In the scientific field we call geography, a lot of disciplines are joined together, like the neurons in a brain, the bits in a byte or the levels in a building. In my research, I’m a psychologist, computer scientist or architect, but above all a geographer. I think that is why I like it so much, one and one is always more than two in geography.

If you see a psychologist, a computer scientist and an architect sitting in a bar, they are probably talking about indoor wayfinding. In my research I am combining these three disciplines to make navigating indoors easier for you. You might have already noticed that google maps says you have reached your destination when you have arrived at the entrance door of a building, although you still have to find the right room in the building. When you enter the door, it’s up to you, even though indoor environments can be a lot more complex than outdoors.

Why doesn’t google maps go indoors?

There are several reasons google maps leaves you behind at the entrance door. First and foremost, the satellite signals of your GPS cannot reach through the walls. To localize ourselves indoors we need different technologies, which already exist, but we are still figuring out which one is the best. Another reason why we are not yet navigating indoors is because the indoor environment is totally different from the one we have already mapped out: the outside world. For example, indoors there are no lanes or sidewalks, which makes it harder for the routing algorithms to generate a route that matches with the natural way of walking. A second example is the presence of complicated structures indoors such as stairs and elevators, which makes it harder for the navigation aids to communicate the route instruction. What should indoor google maps show on the smartphone screen so that people immediately know which way to go indoors? This is the question I am asking in my research and it will take me four years to answer it. Maybe now, you can see why it may take us a while to navigate indoors and why so many scientific disciplines are involved in the process. 

There are endless ways to communicate a route instruction on a smartphone screen (e.g. text, photo, map, video,…). However, these different types of instructions all have a different influence on your behavior, so how can we know which one will help you and which one will complicate things even more? One way to know is by simply asking the future users of such a system (i.e. you guys). That is exactly what I did in the first stage of my research: I developed an online survey where people were virtually walking through a building while seeing different types of route instructions on the side and I just asked ‘how good do you find this instruction type?’. 

Online survey on indoor route instruction types

The interesting thing is that the answer to that question depended a lot on the location in the building were these instructions were shown. If there only was an objective way to identify the (characteristics of) locations in a building so we can use these results for other buildings as well… Oh wait, there is, and it is called space syntax! With space syntax, the indoor environment can be quantified by using a whole range of measures. As I am a geographer and this is an architectural theory I was in need of a fast but accurate method of calculating space syntax measures. The only problem was that there were many options I could choose, resulting in a struggle to see the forest for the trees. The biggest advantage of a PhD is that you have a lot of freedom, the biggest disadvantage is that you have a lot of freedom.

It was at that stage in my research that I went to the ICSC conference in Rome where I met Prof. Ruth Conroy Dalton. I gathered my courage (she is quite a space syntax rock star) and went to talk to her about my research. She advised me to look into the Isovists.org software and so I did. The software was so user-friendly, even for a non-architect, that within a week after the conference I had calculated the measures I wanted. Therefore, I can say that Isovists.org opened the door to space syntax for me. More specifically, the path isovists turned out to be very convenient to calculate directed isovists along the routes. I used 6 measures of those isovists (e.g. area, vista length, occlusivity,…) and the mean visual depth (MVD) measure of the visibility graph analysis to determine the effect of building architecture on the route instruction ratings. 

A single isovist on a path

Another advantage of isovists.com is the commitment of the people involved in the software. I could always contact Sam McElhinney with questions or suggestions which eased the learning process. I remember one particular mailing conversation where we were on a mission to unravel a discrepancy with another space syntax software, which proved that scientific research can be exciting as well. 

Position data, tracked by ultra-wideband sensors, combined with space syntax measure (MVD), calculated with Isovists.org

By now, I almost consider myself an Isovists.org expert. Some of the master students I’m tutoring are using it for their thesis and I continue using it for the next stage of my research. I moved from the virtual environment to the real building and did an experiment where people were guided around with a real homemade indoor navigation system. Meanwhile, they wore an eye-tracker to measure their eye movements and their position was tracked by the ultra-wideband sensors of the navigation system. These results (eye-tracking and position data) will be matched to the space syntax measures calculated with Isovists.org, and that’s when things will get really interesting. We’ll find out if adapting the route instruction type to the building structure (quantified with space syntax) is really beneficial for indoor route guidance. As we say in research, the work is to be continued…!

[Laure De Cock, January 2020]

Real-life route guidance experiment with eye tracker

How has the isovist software changed your understanding of space syntax theory? 
Space syntax is such a big concept in architectural research that it can take a while to familiarize yourself with all the ideas, concepts, measures and applications. Even when you have read everything there is on space syntax theory, it can be difficult to put things into practice, because of the many measures and spatial representations. What we need is a software that offers all the possibilities, but at the same time keeps things simple. Isovists.org has those qualities and is therefore, I believe, the ideal platform to spread space syntax among the researchers of today. Especially for us, non-architects, easy-access and open source software is a prerequisite to use space syntax in our research. The software, the manual and even Sam himself helped me to understand how the measures worked, what they represented and which ones were useful for me. As a result of that help, I consciously made the choice to use the mean visual depth measure instead of the often used integration measure. 

Has this tool inspired you to take any further actions in your research?  
At first, I intended to use space syntax only in the first stage of my research, but isovists.org made the space syntax calculations so straightforward that I included them also in the next stages of my research, where I developed an indoor wayfinding aid prototype. In the past years, a lot of new technologies were developed in wayfinding research, such as position sensors, virtual and augmented reality and gamification. It will be very interesting to see how these new data sources and visualisations will interact with the already established space syntax theory. 

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