Ioanna Spanou
Escuela Tecnica Superior de Barcelona, (

Dimitris Charitos
Department of Communication and Media Studies, University of Athens (


This paper introduces the concept of atmosphere within the context of virtual environments. Firstly, the concept of an atmosphere, the levels of spatial intelligibility relating to the generation of an atmosphere and the manner in which they may relate to causal environmental characteristics and properties are discussed. Finally, reports and observations ofparticipants who experienced certain VEs are investigated for the purpose of identif,ing user feedback that describes elements of the experience, which may relate to the creation of a sense of atmosphere from these VEs.

Key words: Atmosphere; spatial meaning; morphology of feeling; virtual environment design; environmental knowledge.

1. Introduction

An issue that has always been of central importance for architecture and environmental design is the way in which structures of feeling are activated through defining and situating the body in space. "Atmosphere" is defined (Spanou & Peponis, 2002) as the objective properties of an environment that metaphorically exemplify structures of feeling through the creation of embodied experience.

Since virtual environment (VE) technology affords the control of environmental parameters for studying human behaviour and understanding, it may also provide a useful platform for conducting experimental studies regarding the concept of "atmosphere". It is also understood that the intentional design of atmosphere in a VE could enrich the non-discursive meaning of the spatial experience it affords. In order to identify how this enrichment could be achieved the issue of atmosphere in VEs may be investigated by studying the environmental knowledge and behaviour of humans experiencing them.[1]

This paper aims at introducing the concept of atmosphere within the context of VEs and at beginning to investigate how atmosphere and the medium of VEs may relate to each other. Firstly,the concept of an atmosphere,the levels of spatial intelligibility relating to the generation of an atmosphere and the manner in which they may relate to causal environmental characteristics and properties are discussed. This discussion takes into account the specificities of space virtual environments (VEs) and therefore hypothesises about "atmosphere" induced by both real and synthetic spatial experiences. Finally, reports and observations on the experiences of certain VEs are studied for the purpose of identifying user feedback that describes elements of the experience, which may relate to the creation of a sense of atmosphere from these particular VEs.

2. The concept of an atmosphere and its relevance to the spatial experience of a VE

In this chapter an attempt is made to discuss the concept of atmosphere, on the basis of relevant literature regarding real environments (REs). In order to develop an understanding of the concept of atmosphere in VEs, however, it is essential to also take into account the intrinsic characteristics of VEs (Charitos, 1998).

The concept of atmosphere brings together different levels of spatial intelligibility. At the most generic level, atmosphere bears on the orientation, the attribution of importance that underlies our embodied perception of environment. The idea ofenvironmental affordances (Gibson, 1986), that is properties of environment that correspond to basic needs of security, protection, comfort, survival, pleasure and so on, has a clear bearing upon this first level. The reading of environment based on such fundamental affordances can be automatic and is likely to influence subsequent symbolically mediated responses.

At another level, embodied experiences acquire metaphorical proiections and extensions into abstract meanings in the manner recently proposed by Johnson ( 1987) and discussed by Lakoffand Johnson (1999). Such metaphorical extensions and projections of embodied experiences are widely shared, they function as fundamental metaphors we think with, rather than as metaphors we consciously construct, or think of. The interplay between the first two levels can account for some of the literal and less literal meanings of the word "atmosphere".

At a third level, embodied experiences arise as a consequence of intentional design and as responses to relational patterns that are interpreted as an outcome of design. At this level atmosphere is understood reflexively and implies a conscious awareness of environment as symbolic form. In VEs, where even the most simplistic environments to an extent symbolise real settings or quite often mimic them, we inevitably have a case of a designed environment as a symbolic form.

With reference to real environments, it is suggested (Spanou, Peponis, 2002) that whenever a tension arises between the known function ofthe premises and the visual language deployed in the construction of a building/landscape, this tension generates a particular sense regarding the function and the setting, which is not inherent in the program. If we were to adopt and adapt Frege's (1999) distinction between sense and reference we might say that the tension between the primary functional reference of the design and the sense produced by the architectural language is obviously fundamental to the meaning that is architecturally ascribed to the place. The sense created by the language of construction contributes to the creation of a definite atmosphere, through the precise way in which it affects the embodied perception of the setting.

With reference to a distinction between signs and symbols drawn by Susanne Langer (1953) it can be suggested that environmental features that are constitutive of feelings, work simultaneously as signs and as symbols. Signs situate the body within a field of apparent forces and influences. They correspond to the generic level of a mode ofperception, motivated by the needs of an organism and interpret the environment in terms of positive or negative affordances. The particular features of design that function as signs can also be recognized symbols. They are part of a design language applied for accommodating a familiar function, which carries its own emotive charges. These feelings are intensely local in the sense that they envelop the subject sensually and not merely symbolically and in the sense that they work at the level of primary affordances and signs.

A question then arises as to how atmosphere is affected by the overall spatial structure of a setting, including the structure of movement, as well as the cognitive retrieval of the structure of configuration.

Symbolic meaning does not seem structured as a narrative. This does not mean that a narrative cannot be constructed. An emphasis upon narrative would imply an emphasis upon the logical articulation of symbolic forms and would direct us into looking at architecture as a discursive form (Langer, 1979), one where the sequential unfolding of relationships over time is essential to the construction of meaning. The altemative is to think of different moments during a visit at a setting in terms of virtual synchrony, where what is mentally carried from one moment into the next is a memory of atmosphere rather than a memory of precisely articulated form. The impact of patterns of atmosphere, nested into each other, as if in layers of embodied memory, would be to approach each new setting or perceptual horizon, with a perceptual motivation previously felt. Different moments of atmosphere are sewn together as a collage, with partial overlaps, displacements and juxtapositions between parts that retain their independent integrity.

3. Learning from the impact of a VE spatial experience on VE's participants

Following the discussion above, the actual experience of being in certain VEs is investigated by studying the reports and observations ofparticipants' behaviour within:

This study is expected to reveal aspects of the impact that these VEs had on participants at all levels of the spatial experience and to function as a starting point for understanding how VEs may be designed so as to intentionally induce a certain sense of "atmosphere".

3.1 Experiments for studying spatial behaviour in desktop VEs

A series of experiments (Charitos, 1998) were conducted for investigating the dynamic, navigational behaviour ofsubiects, their sense of orientation while navigating, as well as behaviour with respect to relatively static activities located in places, along with the consequent subjective impressions emanating from these experiences.

On the basis of subjects' observations and author's reports [2], it can be suggested that the type of activity that they aim at accomplishing when entering a VE, may influence the manner in which they may experience certain spatial charactcristics and qualities of these places. Physical constraints like gravity may be prominent in the manner that participants experience VEs, even when they are consciously aware that they do not apply to the environment they are experiencing. Indeed, in experiments under unrealistic environmental conditions, subjects were classified according to a certain predisposition for navigational behaviour into:

It is not possible to provide a detailed report of the exact environmental parameters, considered as causes ofthese observations. Therefore, this paper will only refer to the recorded impressions/feelings, induced by certain spatial characteristics, in a systematic manner. These feelings may have been induced: by a sense ofspace or by a certain navigational activity and its kinesthetic impact or by a combination of the two. Metaphorical expressions have been often used for describing these feelings/impressions of:

At the most generic level of spatial intelligibility, the maiority of positive impressions felt by participants related to: a sense of security, clear direction and orientation, comfort and freedom to navigate. Negative impressions reported were senses of: disorientation, insecurity, constraint, restriction to the point of even feeling claustrophobia, physical difficulty in maneuvering for navigation, discomfoft, confusion, distraction, disconcert, uneasiness, frustration, vertigo, shock, threat, fright, fear of height and tendency to escape. Other reported impressions which cannot be clearly characterised as positive or negative mainly refer to a perceptual relation of the body to its environment: body awareness, apparent slowness of movement, sense of going-up or falling, sense of being suspended, kinesthetic relation of body to synthetic space within the monitor.

VE images
Images from VEs used for the purpose of experiments

At a higher level of spatial intelligibility, participants reported a series of positive impressions: sense of comfort relating to clear definition of space (inside-outside relation), happiness about navigating in a non-realistic manner, enioyment, willingness to explore, sense of comfort relating to a certain sense of place, positive sense of distraction associated with interest, excitement-curiosity, excitement for experiencing something new and different. Certain negative impressions were also reported: lack of interest or will to explore, constraint from very precise definition of surrounding space, unwillingness for a novel experience, disturbance. Finally, certain impressions at this level could not be classified as positive or ncgative: sense of "unrealness", fascination and simultaneous distraction by a novel experience, pleasant distraction and a sense of being in a "secretive" space.

It is worth mentioning that even in this desktop VE, subjects often became physically involved while trying to accomplish the task. This involvement was clearly manifested by the movement of their bodies, in an effort to manoeuvre their viewpoint by utilising a 3D input device. Finally, the issue of succeeding types of spaces and consequent experienced atmospheres was discussed in [2]. Participants reported certain strong impressions after passing from one spatial entity to a significantly different other. These reports stress the significance of structuring movement within a VE.


Char Davies (1998) reports a series of "unusual" sensations, experienced by participants immersed in "Osmose":

The assumption that a mobile, wholly-changing environment can be disorientating is put forward by Norberg-Schulz (1971), who agrees with Piaget in that "a mobile world would tie a man to an'egocentric' stage, while a slable and structured world frees his intelligence". Davies' reports on sensations induced by "Osmose" imply a unique, hyper-real, synthetic spatial experience from an egocentric frame of reference, which may be partly attributed to the dynamic and evolving character of space in this VE. It is, however, certain that these sensations are also largely attributed to the exceptional beauty and ethereal atmosphere induced by "Osmose".

4. Concluding remarks

In an attempt to compare the impact of experimental VEs presented in (3.1) with that of Osmose, it may be suggested that a VE like Osmose is more likely to induce a certain atmosphere because: the motive of its creation is poetic rather than functional, the interactive multisensory experience afforded is richer, complex, aesthetically more successful and more immersive. Therefore the body participates more in the experience, thus inducing a deeper affective impact and a spatial experience at a symbolic level.

On the other hand, the experimental VEs are very simple, providing minimal settings for the spatial experience to take place. This is due to the fact that they investigate very specific properties of VEs and do not aim at creating any atmosphere as such. Nevertheless, they manage to induce certain strong spatial impressions, mainly at a generic level of spatial intelligibility. It is also significant to mention that participants often used metaphorical expressions to describe their spatial impression.

After reading into the observations in (3.1), since the experience of VEs fundamentally differs from real spatial experiences and since several participants seemed to adapt relatively quickly to the non-realistic aspects of the experience, it is suggested that there may be a need for developing new sets of affordances, which will relate to the generic level of spatial intelligibility in VEs.


1. In this abstract, humans who experience VEs will be referred to as pqrticipants.
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2. All observations and reports taken into account here have either been spontaneously reported by subjects while doing the experiment or while being questioned or have been observed by the author whilst subiects performed the experiment.
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3. ibid. The website refers to 7500 responses made to Osmose since 1995. When Char Davies's VR works, Osmose and Ephémère, were shown at the Australian Center for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne in 2003/2004, participants were encouraged to fill in a questionnaire after having experienced the either of works. The questionnaire asked the participant to reflect upon the experience of the work: not only the virtual environment it presented but also the bodily movements and sensations experience of the works involved. (The author filled in such a questionnaire at ACMI. In response to a question asking something along the lines of how one felt after experiencing the work, he recorded: "hyperventilated").
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4. Details of work from email correspondence with the artist, and from:
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6. The author experienced Ephémère at ACMI in March 2004. The immersant was in a separate space, one 'wall' of which was a translucent screen; backlighting projected the immersant's shadow onto this screen, making it visible to viewers on the other side of the screen. Comments about the 'actual' installation of Davies's work relate to his experience of this work. (Osmose and Ephémère were presented alternatively using the same installation space/hardware at ACMI.)
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8. This, at least, was the author's experience of the installation of Ephémère at ACMI. Fig. 5.1, in Oliver Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to "immersion", Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 2003 (p. 194) 'shows' a 'setting' of Osmose. While almost certainly a 'simulated view', it does make the immersant's silhouette clearly part of the public display of the work.
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9. An installation view of Cardiomorphologies from the 'reverse angle' to that of the installation view shown in Fig. 1, was included in Kate Richards "Let the body navigate", RealTime 66, Sydney, Open City, 2005 (available online at
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10. It should be noted that the discussion of the artworks mentioned should not be read as critiques of these particular works, for clearly there is no attempt to consider the aspects of the works that are experienced from the participant's or immersant's point of view. For discussion of visual and auditory content of Char Davies' Osmose, see, for example, Grau (op. cit.), pp. 193-196. For a discussion of the 'private' experience of this work, see Mark Hansen "Embodying Virtual Reality: Touch and Self-Movement in the Work of Char Davies",, (also published in Critical Matrix: The Princeton Journal of Women, Gender and Culture, Vol. 12 (1-2) Making Sense (2001), pp. 112-147). For a discussion of the participant's experience of Cardiomorphologies, see, Tim Atack, "Cyborg Dancing", RealTime 72, Sydney, Open City, 2006, (available online at: [last accessed 1 June, 2006]).
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Last verified: December 18th 2013.