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Chapter Introduction

The Literature Review Chapter is important in that it establishes a grounding from which the rest of this thesis will proceed. It is divided into two main sections. These are discussion of visualization tools and their relevance to landscape architecture education, and (2) description of issues relevant to the practical utilization of this technology, particularly as pertaining to the development of the visualizations used in this thesis.

 Visualization Tools and the Landscape Architecture Instructor

Landscape architecture instructors stand as the conduit to a vital artery of information in being the facilitators of the educational process. They are responsible for conveying the technical knowledge that is necessary to begin a career as a landscape architect. But they also, through the tools and techniques by which they convey that information, influence how students feel about the knowledge they are learning. Thus the educational process can be understood as doubly important, in shaping not only what students know, but also how they feel about what they know. Recognizing the importance of each of these facets of education, this thesis assesses visualization technology in both respects.
Within landscape architecture, there are many areas of technical knowledge that need to be covered, but primary among them is a firm understanding of site engineering. As evidence, almost all landscape architecture departments teach a version of “Landscape Architecture Technology I: Grading” to both their incoming undergraduate and graduate students upon entering the curriculum. Within this course, a primary task is developing an understanding of how to visualize the information presented in maps. For this reason, this thesis focuses upon using visualization technology to facilitate teaching information particular to this arena.
Strom and Nathan (1998) begin their book, Site Engineering for Landscape Architects, with the statement: “The shaping of the earth’s surface is one of the primary functions of site planners and landscape architects (xi).” Unfortunately, the learning of this crucial skill is often a painful ordeal, leaving many with the attitude that they’ve never really achieved a firm grasp on the techniques and theory necessary for fully understanding the process. One of the first, and certainly the toughest aspects of this learning process is developing an ability to read topographic maps and recognize the contour signatures represented on them.
Of those that do develop this skill, many have only a superficial understanding of the conjecture that connects various denominations of symbolic contour symbol. As an example, they might know that round circles with internally escalating numbers is a symbol that corresponds with the term “HILL”, but might lack the ability to clearly visualize exactly how the symbol of round circles is constructed in three dimensional space to extrude into a model hill.
Technologies used to convey this information have traditionally been: (1) printed media, (2) cardboard modeling, and (3) real-world study. This research thesis will examine computer-generated animation as a possible fourth alternative to these mediums. Part of the unique package of benefits that computer animation offers is its ability to conform to multiple human-computer-interface (HCI)1 platforms. So as to maintain sensitivity to this particular facet of the technology, it is crucial that any project involving the assessment of such technology recognize the importance of exploring multiple HCI platforms when presenting computer models to subjects. Therefore, this thesis will explore the use of (1) computer monitors, (2) projection screens, (3) the I-Desk, and (4) the CAVE.
The first two of these platforms, computer monitors and projection screens, are 2-dimensional viewing areas, but with the capability of conveying moving perspective through the use of computer animation. The next two of these platforms, the I-Desk and the CAVE, are 3-dimensional viewing systems, that utilize stereoscopic envisioning to convey depth of space, but otherwise work similarly to a computer monitor or projection screen. Through the use of these technologies, visualizations can be demonstrated to students for the purpose of enhancing their educational experience. This thesis is interested in assessing the use of visualization technology to facilitate the teaching of map-based information to landscape architecture students, as well as gauging the students’ attitudes towards this experience.
Although all landscape architecture students are required to develop an understanding of maps, only some undertake this task of learning as a joy of exploration, an opportunity to improve upon the internal conception of one’s place in the universe. Unfortunately, there are others who instead develop a loathing for maps, or are even excluded from the ranks of accomplished landscape architects, as they never escape the gauntlet of an introductory grading course. This is a sad and unnecessary occurrence, as the ability to develop a flair for visualizing the information presented through a map is a skill open to anyone with the patience and interest to learn.
This is especially true now due to advances in the visualization technology available within the university setting. The next section of the Literature Review Chapter will therefore focus upon the practical utilization of this technology, describing the situation surrounding the use of this technology for educational purposes, followed by a concrete breakdown of some of the principles used in the development of the visualizations that formed the backbone of this thesis. (For a more technical description of the development process see Appendix A.)

Utilizing Visualization Technology for Educational Purposes

Sci-fi fantasies of yesteryear have become today’s realities. William Gibson’s (1984) vision of a 3D virtual interface with computer-stored data is being realized in universities across America. Naturally, one of the primary concerns of these universities is the educational value of the technology. It is in to this realm of research that the present study falls. One of the biggest hinderances to the future development of visualization technology, and in particular the virtual reality simulation systems that are its present apex, is the popular portrayal of this technology having potentially spectacular recreational benefits, but little more to offer, and certainly nothing of ‘serious’ significance.
This thesis hopes be part of the body of research that refutes this media inspired fallacy. Towards this objective, this thesis will utilize visualization technology with the purpose of obtaining an assessment of how it facilitates student learning, as well as how it positively affects student attitudes towards learning. By having students participate in visualization exercises, opportunity was created to evaluate this technology. As the student participants were landscape architects, the content developed for these exercises was specifically chosen for its relevance to their field of study.
Education at the undergraduate level and beyond recognizes all students as aspiring specialist in their chosen field. Regardless of what that particular field might be, the specialist utilizes a distinct, but always evolving, set of tools to attain the deepest possible immersion into the knowledge contained within their chosen field. The tools for each unique sphere of specialization are particular to that trade, but the need to devour that field’s information is universal. In this sense, tools for visualizing information are universal tools, relevant to all fields of specialization. As an example, the particular content of a vocational learning demonstration would be quite different for a landscape architect and a linguist, each learning their respective craft, but many of the principles by which that information is most effectively presented to the subject are equally relevant to them both.
Colin Ware (2000) has built a career upon exploring what these universal principles might be. The effectiveness of the visualizations developed as treatments to be used in this thesis rely upon adherence to the principles he articulates. His central doctrine is the belief that information specifically designed to best take advantage of the natural human nervous system will be the most efficient and effective at getting its point across. Building upon his central doctrine, Ware has pursued an empirical model of how the human nervous system interacts with and digests information. From this he is able to pronounce generalizations about what types of information would best coincide with this system.
With this understanding, the visualizations developed for this thesis attempted a re-creation of the kind of information that the human nervous system encounters in nature. By placing contour maps into the aerial and perspective orientation, and further, transitioning gradually between the two, students saw the maps in a manner that coincided with past experiences of how they looked at things. Contrasted with the 2-dimensional manner in which contour maps are usually encountered, it can be understood how this method might benefit both their understanding, and foster a positive attitude toward the learning experience.
The visualizations developed thus demonstrate an appreciation of the dynamic environment in which the human nervous system has evolved. Developing visualizations for enabling information input into the human nervous system, which is at core an information processing system, thus requires an understanding of the role of human perception; and in particular the process by which perceptions become translated into information. The remainder of this section will therefore focus upon some of the principles developed by Ware, and how they were utilized in the development of the visualizations.
Four principles from Ware’s (2000) work were found especially pertinent to the development of the visualizations used as treatments in this thesis. The first of these is the use of sensory versus arbitrary symbols. Ware states, « [s]ensory representations are effective … because they are well matched to the early stages of neural processing (2000, 10). » They therefore tend to be stable across different cultures. This is a vital consideration when developing visualizations for educational use because of the multiculturalism inherent among the student body. In keeping with this principle, the visualizations developed focused upon conveying information about contour signatures that were not arbitrary, but instead directly coincided with the real world features that they represent. More so, the particular focus of the visualizations was a demonstration of how the seemingly arbitrary contour signatures encountered on 2-dimensional maps are in fact derived from the sensory impressions made by the features.
A second principle is the use of images versus words. Ware states « [a]s a general comment, images are better for spatial structures, location, and detail, whereas words are better for representing procedural information, logical conditions, and abstract verbal concepts (2000, 319). » The visualizations developed were thus predominantly imagery designed to convey the spatial structure of the contour signatures as they are perceived from various perspectives, and especially the transitions between those perspectives. However, as abstract verbal concepts are best conveyed through words, the abstract concepts relating to the contour signatures were presented during the introduction of each individual signature as text. This combination of text and imagery, based upon the above mentioned principle, was reasoned to convey the strongest educational message.
A third principle put forth by Ware is the necessity for interaction to be fluid and dynamic. He further states that this is especially important in designing the « data exploration interface … mapping between the data and its visual representation (2000, 362). » Ware references Rutkowski (1982) on this issue, and his principle of transparency, which states similarly, that when transparency is achieved, « the user is able to apply intellect directly to the task; the tool itself seems to disappear (Ware quoting Rutkowski, 362). » This principle was especially useful in guiding the development of the visualizations, as it clearly articulates the importance of making the maps appear as realistic as possible. To the extent that they accurately portray the visual representation of actual contour signatures that might exist in the landscape, so will they work effectively as an interface to the data they are attempting to convey.
Lastly, a fourth principle of key importance in the development of the visualizations is the principle of continuity. This states « we are more likely to construct visual entities out of visual elements that are smooth and continuous, rather than ones that contain abrupt changes in direction (2000, 206). » This principle was useful in guiding the construction of the contour features, which were kept as smooth and continuous as possible, as well as the contour lines themselves, which were treated similarly. This was done with the intention of making the visualizations easily decipherable to the participants.
These principles were useful in guiding the construction of the visualizations that served as the backbone of this thesis. As the intention of the thesis is to gauge the facilitation of student learning through visualization technology, as well as assess positive student reaction, developing effective treatments was crucial. Through the application of these principles, this objective was pursued. These principles can also be recognized as having much broader application then just those mentioned in this section. With more information being required of each generations graduated students to enter their chosen field, the university is hard pressed to develop ever more efficient and effective means of transferring enormous quantities of information into the minds of aspiring specialists.


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