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Physicist Bernhard Riecke studies our sense of where we are in space.
Physicist Bernhard Riecke studies our sense of where we are in space.

Physicist tracks spatial illusions

March 19, 2009

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“All art is one big illusion,” proclaims physicist Bernhard Riecke from his office at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT). Artists have thoroughly explored the visual and auditory realms and even the sensations of touch and taste, he says.
But the passionate assistant professor is interested in the one sense that remains elusive: he studies spatial cognition and orientation—our sense of where we are in space—in hopes of providing artists with creative tools for spatial art.
In one classic spatial cognition experiment, a blindfolded subject sits on a chair suspended above a rotating platform. The person must constantly adjust their feet as the floor moves below. Though the person is stationary, within 25 seconds most people feel like they are rotating.

“It’s a vivid illusion,” says Riecke. “We’ve all experienced it while sitting in a train when another train departs. It feels like our train is moving.”

Riecke came to SFU from Tuebingen, Germany in 2008 with a doctorate in physics, but his interdisciplinary research crosses the boundaries of physics, computer science, psychology and fine arts.

To further illustrate spatial awareness he jumps out of his chair, closes his eyes and takes two steps while bending and turning full circle into a low crouch. Then, with his eyes still shut, he says, “my computer is over there, my jacket is hanging there, and the door is there.”
Everything is where he pointed, which he says anyone can do, but he adds, “if I had to write down on paper the mathematics my brain just did, it would be difficult.”

Our spatial awareness is much faster than any calculation, he says. Scientists don’t yet understand how we do it, but it’s vital for survival. And for artists working in computer graphics and virtual reality, it’s essential.

“Unless you complete the illusion with the body, people will never fully believe it.”

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