I hate swivel chairs. I hate the squincy feelings they give my back. I hate their bland uniformity. But most of all I hate the visceral shadows they leave behind in the VR work of humans who create and wear while sitting in them. I understand their appeal. Showing a VR piece in an demo or even gallery setting usually involves limited spatial tracking and space so plopping headset wearers down in a swivel chair feels like the safest easiest way to get them to turn around without walking around. But the convenience of this set up dulls the embodied experience of the wearer. For those of us working inside, wearing a headset for hours a day, who need to get the most out of the melding of our bodies and the hardware: abandon the 📂desktop metaphor, there’s a better way.
Welcome to the 🎨studio metaphor
“🎨Studio metaphor: painting, dance, yoga, photography, sculpture, film, there are so many creative fields that call where they work a studio.”
-Me, talking to my dog earlier today.
To further my embodiment education for our Year of the Body I decided to take a yoga teaching training. In this post I am remixing much of what I learned from my teachers Alex Crow and Arturo Peal.
I’m starting to see a glimpse of body aware computation systems that through physical posture promote feelings of safety and well-being
— 👁️M Eifler 👁️ (@blinkpopshift) March 6, 2017
Driven by this glimpse, I gave up chairs. Not at the lunch table. Not at a desk. Not at dinner. No chairs. For a 3 weeks. (My labmates were often amused watching me pull pillows off couches just to prop myself up on my knees to each lunch with them. After three weeks I decided a compromise was needed. I could not work in a chair but I could socialize in one.)
This isn’t the first time a computer worker has revolted against the pervasive swivel chair. Many a sore back has taken to standing desks to fix what ails them. Oh standing desks! Those false prophets of the embodied-computer-interaction future. Still clinging to the 📂desktop metaphor, standing desks promise physicality but deliver it without movement. Up on your own two feet but still frozen to a machine ill-equipped to utilize your full range of motion. So instead of retrofitting a dysfunctional model with flimsy ergonomics I took to building out a working environment from materials already designed to facilitate health and well-being in the human then shape the computer to it.
After experimenting with the objects around me: wood floors, rugs, standing desk mats, and cushions I decided to cover the floor of our VR workspace in 100 sqft of sky blue puzzle piece floor mats usually used for little kids (flipped over to have the velvety side up). This simple change in flooring laid the groundwork (puns!) for 🎨studio metaphor by making the floor a comfortable place to be; a place where knees, boney ankles, side ribs, elbows, and chins are all welcome. There’s nowhere to fall. Crawl around.
Here’s what that looks like:
On top of that I added lime green and purple yoga mats, bright orange bolsters, yoga blocks, and belts. (Yes the color matters, but I’ll get back to that.) These props, and the ways we use them, come from restorative and yin yoga. Restorative yoga is an approach to yoga asanas (poses) which works directly with the nervous system, promoting feelings of safety and security by supporting every joint in the body and using verbal cues to encourage deep relaxation. Yin yoga uses the same poses but with different emphasis. The goal in yin is to elongate connective tissue. Connective tissue is everything from bones to joint capsules to the honeycomb of endomysium which surrounds and gives structure to every muscle cell in a vast continuous network. Unlike the muscle fibers themselves which are elastic (bounce-baFck-fulness) connective tissue is plastic (stretch-ableness) which means that it will change shape with any low intensity, long duration position. You are already doing connective tissue modifying things everyday. If you use a laptop or phone you are familiar with hunch pose. Long exposures accentuate the kyphotic curve in upper spine (rounding the shoulders and ribs forward) and the lordodic curve in the neck (jutting the head forward). Blech.
Instead the poses I will share here are meant to
Change through out the day
Be customizable to different needs
Promote strength, flexibility and ease
Since working while wearing a headset is the main focus of our work it is also the main focus of our space.
Vi taking a break from a long VR meeting. She is still listening in but lets her body (and her avatar) rest.
Here Vi is using two bolsters to stretch her lower back and change her perspective.
Working in Anyland I toss my legs up the wall to restore tired feet.
Sitting up tall can be difficult on the flat floor so Vi is using a bolster to elevate her hips, strengthen her spine, and relax her knees wide onto supportive blocks.
While the wearing a headset the floor encourages movement and the props have your back, but this set up needs to be flexible enough to support all our styles of work not just wearing:
While taking notes I use a bolster to support my lower back.
Bolsters can be stacked to any height so they help incorporate other apparatus like this easel.
Sitting with a cushion between your bent knees may work better for humans who find cross legged sitting uncomfortable (even elevated as in previous pictures).
The props encourage play and experimentation. Here Vi jots down a few notes with one knee hooked over a bolster.
Reading can be done in so many poses! Here Vi rests back on two bolsters with knees bent stretching the front of the thighs and lower back.
We have been using this set up in social situations too!
Thursday’s are Drink and Discuss days!
Restorative beer drinking🍺
The floor has become the defacto flop and think area. (Licked in the face is optional)
But as with all creative habitats there is a learning curve to get the most out of it. Skillfully using a combination of crawling, standing, and supported poses to both work in the virtual environment and balance the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (which dials the attention toward arousal) and the parasympathetic (which shifts resources toward rest and digestion) requires the wearer to develop a level of bodily awareness and sensitivity usually reserved for dancers and musicians. If that seems intimidating not to worry, bodily awareness comes with practice. Following along with the mountain of documentation in this post can get you started.
Ok Now we have covered the floor, the props, and the bodies let’s zoom out to the larger room then zoom in to software.
The floor you are on, the furniture you use, the design of the software, but also where you wear influences the experience you have in a headset. Where and how our VR play space is situated was inspired half by necessity and half by the ‘womb with a view’ concept from home design I learned from Winifred Gallagher’s book House Thinking (Thanks Margaret for the recommendation!). Gallagher describes a framework for building living spaces that “improve[s] our lives and perhaps even our mental health” by balancing 5 components: prospect, refuge, enticement, peril, and complex order. If they can make a home feel homier why can’t they make a studio feel safe and playful? Safe-at-home is exactly the feeling a VR space needs because as Gallagher points out “Safe at home, we even enjoy perilous heights and pay extra for dramatic views, balconies, and staircases to prove it.” VR’s perilous heights included.
But while all these changes in environment and furniture and behavior can dramatically improve the experience of wearing, it must be met by software designed for the same union of mobility and stability. It’s this environment, not the swively present, ya’ll should be testing in. A simple example: What makes the Youtube Daydream app better than the Netflix one? Youtube enables users to position the focal point anywhere. Netflix choose a fixed focal point that can’t accommodate many of these postures. It’s haunted by the specter of that swivel chair. Fixed focal point is 📂desktop metaphor, the old way. Variable focal point is 🎨studio metaphor, the new way.
Ok enough reading about it! Get on the floor already!
ps. This is Micheal. And he approves of this message. 🙂