Thinking in 3D (Part 1)

An approach to Immersive Design for our Cognitive Faculties

A problem that often arises in people of any age or experience is simply an inability to organize their thoughts. It may be due to a myriad of circumstances that arise throughout life, but sooner or later many people have a likeliness to get distracted, become complacent, wander off track, and lose sight of their dreams and passions. In other cases (such as my own) people can struggle to filter down to just one direction. As an Engineer in college I was very driven to build a strong career towards sustainable energy technologies for developing parts of the world. While I’m still engaged in that pursuit, I’ve found my world illuminated with another light, and while it seems to have pulled me off course a bit, further exploration has revealed that it might just carve a new way of helping people (myself included) stay on track.

On somewhat of a “Vision Quest” over the past year I headed out to NYC, Nashville, and California to explore the early waves of the emerging Immersive Reality industry. I found this field fascinating because throughout my education I was inspired and engaged with the 3D graphical designs that captured concepts in Math, Physics, and other Physical Sciences. Through a number of conferences, demonstrations, and conservations I’ve seen some pretty incredible ways people are improving the way we interface with the world. Combining these thoughts with my experience in engineering, and interest in neuroscience, has driven me to think a lot about how this will impact human cognition in general. Out of this quest has come a vision to give tangible structure to those dreams and passions, to build a mnemonic device for staying on track. A sort of Virtual Dreamcatcher if you will. This might be a bit of a rabbit hole, but let’s dive into it.

“A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”

Communication tools such as graphical organizers, infographics, diagrams, pictures, and other visual aids have shown to improve retention rates, reading comprehension, student achievement, and critical thinking skills when applied to the learning process. As the brain needs to supply the bandwidth to process all of the information coming in from our primary sensory organs, Visual Learning is a cognitive process that the brain is naturally wired for. It coordinates information between a significant number of regions in the brain, and allows for a lot of ideas and information to be processed intuitively.

From the times of Ancient Greece comes a concept diving further into the utilization of visual structures as a tool for organizing one’s thoughts and memories. This approach is known as the Method of Loci, or the Memory Palace. The basic concept is that you associate ideas and memories to various objects in a scene. For example, say you want to memorize a list of 100 ideas, thoughts, memories, statements, etc. A common approach of the Method of Loci is to pick 10 unique rooms in a building or home, and 10 unique items in each of those rooms. As you scan each room and study these 10 unique objects, associate them with an idea from that list. Study the objects thoroughly as you are thinking about that idea, and with enough practice you will be able to close your eyes, walk through that house in your mind, and recall the ideas you associated with the scene. It’s an interesting trick to think about and try out, and further research will show that some pretty interesting visual structures can be used to memorize unique bits of information. Another example is the Bill of Rights and the Skeletal system. You focus on the names of a particular set of bones in the human body, and the names of those bones have key sounds that correspond to main ideas in each Amendment from the Bill of Rights.

What’s going on here is that by creating these connections to 3D spatial locations, your brain is now using the visual cortex to build an addressing system — allowing you to store and navigate through ideas like you would in a real life library. It gives your memory a type of scaffolding, so that it has more order and structure rather than a big pile of thoughts.

The problem I’ve found about these techniques though is that they are limited to unique circumstances. Recalling the Bill of Rights is useful (and I should probably work harder to keep it in my conscious thought more often), but that visual data format can’t really be used for anything else. When you memorize objects in a room and associate them with various ideas, that’s it. That memory might stick for a long time, but it’s not really something that becomes a part of your daily thought process.

Old Ideas into New Technology

This is where recent developments in the Immersive Technology industry (Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality) come in, and what excites me most about the field. By using powerful visual displays that bring the user’s presence front and center to 3D virtual environments, we can now explore a whole new way of formatting information. Instead of a unique set of objects that can only be associated with a limited set of ideas, virtual programs will be able to help people manage massive databases of information by systematically generating virtual structures based on the formatting of information.

Just as maps have evolved from cave drawings to 3D virtual replicas of our cities and landscapes, the same will happen for maps of information. One really cool example of a step of this evolution is the Math Tree in the innovative education platform KhanAcademy. It’s a massive tree of knowledge for just about all of the various lessons and specialties in Mathematics, and I am excited (and a little bit envious) for just how much of an aid it must be to the learning process for a student first going through these concepts. I have also found it useful as a way to then navigate back through material for review with much greater ease than filing through the sections of a textbook.

As these knowledge maps grow and evolve to cover more information, the ways in which knowledge is organized will be very important. One tool has already been created to map the entire Wikipedia database, and it resembles a galaxy (WikiGalaxy). An effort to map the routing paths of the internet called the Opte Project began in 2003 that gives a similar perspective.

Though beautiful and thought provoking - these clusters don’t give a lot of structure or order to the vast amounts of information they represent, and thus can seem like we’re getting back to the unmanageable piles of information.

The pioneering philosopher and astrophysicist Carl Segan once famously said:

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Just as we develop new ways of exploring and creating order in the universe around us, developing an orderly cosmos of what we know will be just as important to keep us going in the right direction.

Thinking in 3D (Part 2)