This year, Royal Caribbean has added virtual balconies to several of its ships. Imagine an 80-inch high-definition screen providing a live feed of views and sounds of the ocean in real-time. High-speed cameras placed strategically around the ship ensure that the feeds match the placing of the cabins, showing the view passengers would have if only their cabin wall was on the outside of the ship.
“Even when you are right up next to it, it looks like you could reach straight through it” says Bill Martin, Chief Information Officer at Royal Caribbean. Watch the video to find out more.
When I was researching ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ (Bloomsbury, 2013) I came across an interesting essay about the role of windows in relation to our desire to connect with nature. Writing in Biophilic Design, architectural designer Kent Bloomer, explains that the large picture windows we so enjoy actually provoke a damaging level of cognitive dissonance. This is because, he explains, ‘we possess a psychological boundary around our bodies (and by extension around our houses) that divides, or separates, our sense of a personal, possessed interior space from an exterior extra-personal space.’
This boundary is vitally important to our experience of the world because it conditions our perceptions of the environment; it appears at places of entry and exit, providing visual information about ‘social rank, safety, cultural belief and the occupants’ relationship to nature’. Passing through the boundary indicates the near-possibility of touching and that haptic experience is, says Bloomer, ‘fundamentally critical in establishing a firm connection, a “contact” with the natural environment. Yet’, he goes on, ‘touching is precisely what is negated by the pure picture window!’His solution is to make the boundary more obvious, not less, by investing in the liminal transitional space of the window and using different tactile ornamentations to emphasize the threshold. By touching them, or being able to imagine touching them, you may heighten your sensual association with the world outside.
His solution is to make the boundary more obvious, not less, by investing in the liminal transitional space of the window and using different tactile ornamentations to emphasize the threshold. By touching them, or being able to imagine touching them, you may heighten your sensual association with the world outside.
Royal Caribbean’s virtual balconies seem to follow Bloomer’s prescription by superimposing the structure of a railed balcony to create a liminal transitional space. They also emphasise the threshold surrounding the image with real tactile curtains.
Both establish what Bloomer calls a ‘visible and touchable moment of mediation between inside and outside’. Furthermore, the system provides accompanying live sound which matches what you would hear if you were sitting on a real balcony.
There is plenty of research showing the benefits of proximity to ‘unreal’ nature such as photographs, videos, paintings, and virtual reality environments. Virtual balconies are one more example of how this can be put into practice, and they seem to be receiving positive reviews from passengers. In 2011, the Disney Cruise Line tried circular ‘virtual portholes’ but have not installed them in their newer ships, purportedly because of the cost, but perhaps a simulated porthole is less satisfying to our biophilic needs than a simulated balcony.
So far, virtual balconies appear to be restricted to cruise ships, but there could be many uses for them on dry land. A live view of the area outside your home or office building might not be very desirable, but the virtual window or balcony does not have to show that. Instead, it could feature scenes from selected areas of beauty such as those shown in a recent series on Norwegian TV station NRK, which streams live feeds of the Saltstraumen maelstrom. Or failing that, it could even consist of a simple recorded video similar, perhaps, to the much-missed TV Landscape Channel.
One can imagine virtual balconies and windows becoming popular with urban homeowners who enjoy beautiful views, or in hospitals where patients may be soothed by their biophilic presence, but there could also be more disturbing applications. Keeping people calm in prisons and detention centres comes to mind. Virtual nature is a powerful tool.