talking spatially


Context-aware services, Application software, Context awareness, Human computer interaction, Communication channels, Ubiquitous computing, Environmental management, Information filtering, human/machine performance, intelligent user interfaces, network filtering, adaptive user interface, context-dependent interface, human work interaction design

talking spatially icons large.jpg


switch cost

Switching cost (black)

Switching cost (black)

We live in a connected era where multitasking is an essential part of life. Today emails seem to ping you at the most inopportune times. When your boss sends you a project specific email, you may be in the middle of a meeting about a completely different project; you might be on vacation or catching up with friends. Even if your boss’s email happens to be about the project you’re working on at the moment, it’s unlikely that it’s relevant or necessary to the task you’re focused on. These interruptions cost time.

They break focus. Our devices allow emails and other notifications to reach us, and they’re seemingly unaware of where we are, what we’re working on, or who we’re with.

The diagram above demonstrates switching cost, the time wasted every time your brain refocuses on a new task. The more switches the more waste.




app switching

Switching cost (black)

Switching cost (black)

Let’s think back to your boss’s email. When you’re finally situated on a task that requires it you still have to spend time finding it. That means minimizing your application window, opening a web browser, signing into an email service, searching for the email, and finding the relevant information. While this may not seem like a big deal, when multiplied over many tasks, a day can turn into bizarre workflows of finding the right files, and opening and closing apps. It sometimes feels like an entire day of work was chopped up by these short retrieval tasks, breaking your focus and hindering your ability to get anything done. 

To create a single document you could require Gmail, Photoshop, Illustrator, Rhino, Slack and a web browser. Switching between each application is time and focus lost. In order to prevent switching cost applications need to be integrated to one another. They need to be able to communicate without having to close one application and open another, especially when one application only requires a small piece of information from the other.




the architect's 3d environment

The Architects Various Applications and Document Types

The Architects Various Applications and Document Types

Architects’ and engineers’ work is exceptionally difficult to integrate. These professions require highly specific and different applications because of the nature of 3d work. Coordinating a building means coordinating schedules, physical space, dimensions, available products and labor. Some information is best visualized in 3d modeling applications while project schedules are best visualized in calendar applications. Room schedules are best in excel while timely information is best uncovered through conversations in messaging systems. This leads to disjointed workflows, and lots of time wasted on  switching tasks. 

To make matters worse, 3d problems are abstract and thus particularly difficult to describe. Often new drawings have to be created just to clarify where a coordination item is. 

Furthermore, a human is required to link information between various applications back together. This brings us back to the issue of wasted switching costs every time a person must retrieve information from a different application.

A Person Is Required To Connect Information From Various Application

A Person Is Required To Connect Information From Various Application


A better more intuitive way to coordinate on spatial problems would be to describe issues with the coordinating parties while you look together at the 3D model. However, finding the right time to get people looking at the same model is a challenge in and of itself. You need to coordinate schedules, jot down information for later so that it isn’t forgotten and then retrieve that information at the appropriate time. This quickly 

becomes just as complex and time consuming as trying to describe issues over email. The ability to integrate relevant information at the appropriate time and place becomes increasingly important for the architectural profession. But how can we curate information and conversations to happen at the appropriate time and place?




communicating spatially

Current 3D modeling applications like BIM (Building Information Modeling) tie information to objects as attributes. In older modeling programs like AutoCAD a line is a line, but in a BIM program like Revit a line belongs to the edge of a door. A modeled door in Revit knows that it’s in a specific room, and can thus appear on door schedules. But how might information in other applications like email refer to that door? 

When an object is modeled it is tracked within the modeling application using a unique name called a GUID. GUID or ‘Globally Unique Identifier’ is a unique 128-bit hexadecimal name used to uniquely identify resources. For example:


Because every object has a completely unique GUID it can be used to reference objects across applications. 

My team at the Graduate School of Architecture and Planning Preservation recognized an opportunity to make conversations about buildings more natural by tying discussions with the virtual objects they reference. We used the communication app, Slack, to organize communication. Slack integrates easily with various applications and conversations in Slack are organized by their content into channels. We were able to use Slack’s API to generate channels around object’s GUIDS in Rhino. We wanted to leverage the conversational ease of Slack and build conversations around virtual objects, which is currently impossible in Revit and other modeling programs. The flow diagram below demonstrates the user interface for messaging in Rhino. When a user communicates in the message window in Rhino, this automatically generates a unique channel in Slack that is connected with the GUIDs of the objects that are selected.

Flow Diagram: Rhino → Slack

Flow Diagram: Rhino → Slack

Flow Diagram: Slack → Rhino

Flow Diagram: Slack → Rhino


So rather than close Rhino to send an email about an issue at the entryway of the building, you can message directly in Rhino with the objects selected. This means the information is time-stamped, easily archived, searched and tagged to the entryway. Now when the engineer is working on the entry, your message is linked. Select any objects in the entryway, and a panel in Rhino will display all past conversations about that object. All messages and channels associated with the GUIDs of any selected objects are pulled from Slack into the panel in Rhino. This brings specificity to conversations and eliminates the overhead of tracking external information. Almost all documents (calendars, excel budgets, product specs) have a spatial component that could be tied through this Rhino/Slack system. Most importantly this brings transparency so that all project information in any format can be accessible to anyone working on an area greatly reducing confusion and costs.

Discussing a project through typical modes of emailing and drawing sets is overly abstract. Designers can harness the 3D interface of modeling applications to discuss projects spatially inside virtual models. 

The image below shows screenshots from the application we built and describes a typical use case. We used Grasshopper with a Python Script to build the application. The project is open source and can be downloaded on GitHub here.




integrated app resources

Future apps should break outside of their silos to span across applications to heighten focus, make communication simpler, and make information more universally available.

Many applications are already finding ways to integrate with external information. For designers interested in using these methods, the following applications are push integrating workflows in architecture.






Flux is a plugin for Grasshopper that allows architects to collaborate in a central file using Rhino+Grasshopper 

Modelo is a presentation tool for architects that allows for embeddable presentation models

SketchFab allows you to quickly upload and embed models on the web for free

Iris VR allows for quick conversation of architecture models to VR

Insite VR converts models for VR

If This Then That is a web service that allows you to create chains of conditional statements which trigger based on events on social media




talking buildings

Talking spatially has broader implications for cities beyond building development. While our devices have the potential to be situationally aware, i.e. they know where we are and when we are, they could go much further in curating what information is directed to us by minimizing the wasted switching costs we spend daily. Not only our locations but also events can be corroborated by our calendars. When at home certain types of work email could be blocked by geo-fences. If a social justice event was happening in 15 minutes near by, a device could let us know only if we were interested in social justice meetups, our calendar was clear and we were nearby. At the grocery store, a device could ping you about that recipe mom emailed last week. When you arrive at the door of a friend’s house, the building's entry code could appear on your device, but only within the time frame that your friend wants to grant access. 

Information usually buried in the increasingly chaotic hodgepodge of an email inbox should appear as spatially and temporally encoded instructions throughout the day and the city. The context of where information is delivered changes the meaning and relevance of that information. Communication in an integrated era will mean all information has the capability of being linked spatially across a city, temporally through calendars, linked and protected among associated parties, personalized based on our interests, adaptive even to our mood or energy levels, and curated to anticipate the most relevant information in continually morphing contexts.