Virtual Balcony, Photo: Penny Wong, 2016

When Is A Window Not A Window? When It’s A Virtual Balcony.

If you’re planning a holiday on a cruise ship but can only afford an inside cabin with no windows, you might want to look out for a different kind of view – the virtual balcony.

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.

Large picture windows may provoke a damaging level of cognitive dissonance

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.

A visible and touchable moment of mediation between inside and 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.

Virtual nature is a powerful tool.

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.

What’s The Point Of Artificial Plants? #technature

Fake Nature

Lately I’ve felt very tempted to buy a fake tree for my apartment but there’s a tiny voice in my head warning me off. Sacrilege, it’s saying! The thin end of the wedge! Soon you’ll find yourself replacing all your real plants with plastic and your soul will wither. But, I don’t know. I really like the idea of an indoor tree, and a real one is not only expensive but, knowing my poor nurturing skills, would almost certainly die slowly and horribly over a fairly short period of time.

Leaves – Real And Fake

At the moment, a corner of my home looks like this  (right). The plants in the foreground are real but behind them is a Walplus Wallsticker picture of a tree with falling leaves scattered across the wall.  It felt like a huge risk when I first did it but the transfer was very inexpensive and could easily be taken off if I didn’t like it. But, I do like it. And maybe there’s a good reason for that…

Nearby Nature

In Technobiophilia, I wrote about the power of ‘nearby nature’ as described by R. & S. Kaplan in their important book The Experience of Nature (1989) (hard to find, check your library).

Instances of nearby nature are small suggestions of the natural world which, although seemingly insignificant and often out of physical reach, can play a powerful role in human well-being. Even the sight of a few trees viewed through a window can provide a sense of satisfaction and people with access to nearby natural settings have been found to be healthier than those without; studies show they experience increased levels of satisfaction with their home, job and life in general. Nearby nature does not have to be beautiful or complex, and you do not even have to be physically close to it to gain the benefits. It appears to be just as potent when viewed through a closed window or seen pictorially via a photograph, painting, video, or even something as mundane as a wall calendar.

The Kaplans didn’t express any opinions about fake greenery, but it seems to me that as long as it’s done well it must surely fall into the category of nearby nature.

So This Is The Fake Tree I’ve Been Thinking About

An artificial weeping fig, made from polyethylene plastic, 170cm tall. I saw it in the store, and felt its leaves.

It’s kind of fabric-y, not cool and living, and the ‘wood’ is pretty badly done. but from a distance it’s a kind of mirage of a tree.

I think I could live with it. Any advice?

Would it bring a breath of nearby nature?

Emotional Connections

There is a little-known design discipline devoted to helping us feel closer to the natural world. It’s called biophilic design and Professor Tim Beatley is one of the best-known researchers in that area. He leads the international Biophilic Cities Network.

In a recent blog post, Tending To Our Interior Nature(s), Beatley advises choosing objects and furnishings with meaningful stories, connections, relationships with real nature. He also recommends nature-themed art, explaining the personal benefits he has gained from photographs:

Nature-themed art is now commonly found in many hospitals and offices, and can both help to elicit positive feelings and jog memories of earlier nature experiences. I have framed photos of Half Dome, in Yosemite, for instance, and Monument Valley, Utah. These forms of interior nature are beneficial in themselves and enjoyable to look at, but also embody important memories and mental connections that can be activated with the slightest gaze or pondering. While not every time I look at these photos, but quite often, they have the effect of taking me back to the time and place, and sensations and family connections that I associate with those memories.

He offers lots of interesting examples of ways in which interior decor of all kinds can enhance our relationship with nature, using natural materials like water, wood and stone., although I must admit that, like the Kaplans, he makes no mention of plastic wall transfers or polyethylene trees.

Shall I go ahead and get that tree? Still can’t decide…