(In-)Between Spaces: Challenges in Defining the Experience of Space in Mixed Reality Art Exhibitions

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2021.40 | Issue 7 | Oct 2021

Izabela Derda, Tom Feustel & Zoi Popoli (Erasmus University Rotterdam)


Abstract

Technology-driven design can support the creation of storytelling experiences that offer innovative ways of transmitting knowledge and information. Against the backdrop of criticisms by museums’ and art galleries’ visitors, who demand more participatory approaches in exhibitions’ design, new technologies have also emerged as tools for making art relevant again, and making museums and galleries hybrid places where the virtual and digital aspects of stories can be combined with corresponding physical artefacts. Observing people's reactions and behaviours in those hybrid environments requires an examination of the ways in which they engage with space in the process of meaning-making, by changing and adapting the space to suit their means.Theoretical literature has thoroughly parsed the concept of space, but in the context of mixed-reality experience design, it has become hazy again. In the article, we explore practitioners’ views on the ontological issues with defining experience space and discuss its in-betweenness, inseparability and unrealness.

Introduction

Historically, museums and art galleries were defined by their role as institutions of knowledge and cultural heritage (Lake-Hammond and Waite, 2010). The objects on display and space available determined the layout of each exhibition, with exhibition design framed solely as a means to please the curator and content experts (Lake-Hammond and Waite, 2010). However, audience expectations have challenged the conventional, passive, static-object display to evolve into audience-centred experiences (Barnes and McPherson, 2019; Dal Facco and Vassos, 2017; Lake-Hammond and Waite, 2010; Muller and Edmonds, 2006; Mygind, Hällman, and Bentsen, 2015). New forms of technology-backed exhibitions transform museums into hybrid places where the digital narrative intertwines with artefacts, and visitors actively interpret and co-create what they see (Dal Falco and Vassos, 2017). The availability of ubiquitous computing in the form of smartphones and tablets opened new venues for augmented reality and immersive technologies,, and introduced location-based applications (Martin et al., 2011). GPS tracking enabled the display of digital media to follow audience members while moving through the physical exhibition space (Cheng and Tsai, 2013; Dunleavy and Dede, 2013). This led to new design trends such as tech-supported gamification and experience hybridization, due to their inclusion of the physical surroundings into the interactive design.


The turn toward expressing and exposing art through digital means, in the form of digital images and virtual worlds, corresponds with another 20th century notion that rejected the idea that art is purely material. Rejecting colours and canvases, artists turned towards the world of immaterial expression (Grammatikopoulou, 2010), experimenting with experiencing the art as an ‘idea’ or ‘feeling’ that objects create (LeWitt, 1969). However, seeing digital or mixed-reality experiences as immaterial presents multiple challenges in terms of researching experience-related behaviours and social transactions (de Castell, Jenson, and Taylor, 2014), and defining subjects, agents, and especially ‘spaces’ of experience. It is important to address those issues with critical attention, as the problem of ‘labelling’ can lead to the misinterpretation of visitors’ actions in hybrid environments where they are encouraged to engage in place-making by changing and adapting the space.


In our research, we often meet creators to discuss their work and creative processes. In these conversations, we came to conclusion that, even among practitioners working daily on mixed-reality projects, there are problems with defining basic concepts and describing the space in which art experiences occur. Therefore, we interviewed 18 creators involved in the process of mixed-reality experiences creation in order to understand their perception of the ontological problem of defining the experience space of art exhibitions and installations. In the paper, we engage with the fast-changing field of exhibition design and shed light on what we have identified as key issues of mixed-reality experience: in-betweenness, inseparability, and (un)realness. In our work we do not aim to offer new concept grids or methodologies for assessing space, but rather to highlight the matters that seem most challenging and fleeting elusive in our existing understanding of experience spaces.


What is space?

A space can be defined as the essential geographic, three-dimensional environment that serves as the basis for all existence, comprising both living beings and lifeless objects (Harrison and Dourish, 1996). Space hosts actions and interactions among both its living and inanimate inhabitants (Gaver, 1992). Hence, space is the three-dimensional world in which we live and act.


Media space integrates audio-visual and communication technologies to create a virtual environment that can be assessed by different parties and is often used to collaborate remotely (Dourish, 2006). Media space mimics properties of space, especially relational orientation and presence awareness, as those properties enable interaction. While a media space itself takes place within a virtual environment, there remains some ‘realness’ to the virtual space, which relates to the real-life actions that are required to access it, such as sitting in an office and using a computer or smartphone. Moreover, the intellectual work of processing, navigating, and interpreting the space takes place in a real brain. The media space can, therefore, be seen as a hybrid of real and virtual elements (Harrison and Dourish, 1996).


Augmented Reality (AR) technology makes use of the three-dimensional environment by overlaying virtual elements onto the real space (Azuma, 1997; Carmigniani and Furht, 2011). Manovich (2006) introduced the concept of augmented space, which he established as physical space that is enriched by locally personalised and dynamically changing multimedia content. Augmented space does not only refer to augmented reality, but instead is an umbrella term for all physical spaces that are loaded with information. The augmentation can arise from different technologies, such as multimedia screens, animated building fronts, signs, smartphones, computers, and augmented reality, but also it can also be seen as data spaces (Manovich, 2006). Therefore, augmentation adds more information and make space multi-dimensional. Augmentation complicates the relationship between space and users, since content overlaid onto the physical space can be changed at any time, thereby changing the appearance of the space (Spohrer, 1999). While both media and augmented spaces, are hybrid, they contain disparities. Media spaces take place virtually, while augmented spaces occur in the physical world.


However, space should not be mistaken with place, which is understood as a socially produced space. Lefebvre (1991) suggests the notion that the social production of place is based on spatial practices, space representations, and representational space. Spatial practices describe the observations of oneself and others in space. Observing people's practices in space reveals how they engage in place-making by changing and adapting the space for their own ends. Humphreys and Liao (2011) share this notion and add that the social production of space occurs through communication about and through place. The former implies that people talk about a particular space and thereby create a value-laden version of that space - a place. The latter is more indirect, and describes a place-making process, which gives meaning to space through the people who stay there. On the contrary, representations of space are not self-realised but imposed by others.


In the context of experience design, it can be said that augmenting technologies support differentiation between space and place and provide opportunities to alter the social construction of space, which implies changing the place (Graham et al., 2012). Even though the process of place-making does not belong to the scope of this paper, making a differentiation between space and place is key for further discussion.


Where the experience occurs

Before we move to exploration of issues around defining a ‘space’ of experience, it is important to acknowledge that the space can be used to organise content according to its purpose.This implies that the role of space could be to structure digital content similarly to how physical space organises our everyday lives. Therefore, to determine the role of the physical space for mixed-reality experiences, we have to differentiate between three main types of augmentation. The first is fixed-to-screen, which can be observed in the vastly popular face and environment filters on social media platforms, such as Instagram and Snapchat. The physical space in which a user acts is irrelevant as it does not reshape or directly influence the experience.


The second type is omni-spatial and can be deployed in various spaces, which fulfil the spatial practicalities, without losing its purpose. An example would be an AR visualisation of a 3D model. This would work on any flat surface, such as a table or floor, which can be tracked by the AR device. Here, space only acts as a stage to host the content, but does not add to the experience. Some of the interviewed creators suggested that this kind of experience does not offer the full potential of immersive or augmenting technologies as the physical space does not have a real function without a meaningful interaction between the virtual and the ‘real.’


The third kind of experience is location specific and achieves its full effect only when deployed at the dedicated space for which it was designed. In this case, space not only acts as a stage, but actively contributes to the outcome of the experience and gives it purpose.

As the first type of experience does not need space to be effective, we focus the omni-spatial and location-specific kinds of experiences.


Our approach

Our research took a qualitative approach with 18 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with practitioners involved in the creation of mixed-reality experiences. Residing in Western Europe or the United States of America, these creators work across the globe in a variety of roles, ranging from developer to designer and AR artists. Accessibility and expertise dictated the sample selection; all the interviewees are recognised and, in most cases, highly awarded experts in the field, and lived in geographic proximity to the research team and their extended personal network.


The original idea behind the interviews was to explore both the defining features of immersive installations used in art and museum experiences and the creative processes behind them. However, it quickly became apparent that there is no common language in the field and the ontological issue of defining experience space came up naturally in our discussions. Further interviews were structured to include matching questions on this problem. Some of the interviewees chose to explore the topic using examples of their own and other creators’ work, which we share here in support of our discussion.


This approach has allowed us to explore the topic within broader contexts of creative processes, provide a more in-depth view of installation design, and identify three key issues related to the ontology of space in mixed-reality experiences, namely in-betweenness, inseparability, and unrealness.


There is nothing there

In-betweenness

‘The problem [with AR-based mixed-reality art experience] is that you cannot easily define the [art] object. The exposed artefact alone makes little-to-no sense to a visitor; the app will not work without the object; and what you see happening on the screen on your mobile is not really on the screen. It’s there. It’s in-between.’ (Interviewee 14).


Augmented art experiences are often achieved by overlaying digital content onto physical space and objects with AR technology. The displayed information can take multiple forms of data visualization and appear as a holographic projection in the visitors’ fields of view. Location-based augmentation integrates their subjective perception of reality with the digital overlay and creates an impression of virtual and real worlds merging into one. However, it poses the issue that the actual content of the installation is ‘hung’ in-between the worlds of real and virtual.


An example of this kind of in-betweenness (as suggested by two of the interviewees) is the augmented reality exhibition, Mirages and Miracles by Adrien M and Claire B. In the series of installations visitors can observe motionless, inorganic objects, like stone, which – when pointed to with a tablet computer – ‘come to life.’


Mirages and Miracles trailer, © Adrien M and Claire B


‘The tablet becomes the window to these previously undiscovered realities’ (ars.electronica.art), unlocking the world ‘in-between’ where virtual objects and people appear, move, and talk.


Even though existing definitions of the experience space can be to some extent be adapted to the principles of mixed-reality design by defining augmentation as an overlay (as mentioned before), they do not really grasp the problem of ‘in-betweenness,’ which appears in cases like ‘Mirages and Miracles.’ Likewise, augmented experiences challenge the idea of presence defined as ‘a spatial relationship to the world and its objects. () Something that is ‘present’ is supposed to be tangible for human hands, which implies that, conversely, it can have an immediate impact on human bodies’ (Gumbrecht 2004, xiii). This definition of presence implies that if we are not able to grab something with our hands, it is not ‘present’ in the space we occupy. Does it mean the object is present ‘elsewhere’? If so, where? Or is it not present at all?


The lack of terminology to describe in-betweenness or to assess presence in the design and experience of mixed-reality exhibitions was mentioned by most of the interviewees. As they explained, the industry has not yet developed labels consistent enough for establishing a common language of mixed-reality design. This issue was also acknowledged in scholarly writing, which struggles with consistent terminology on the topic (de Castell, Jenson, and Taylor, 2014; Yung and Khoo-Lattimore, 2019). Likewise, the creators mentioned the need for stronger differentiation within the concept design grids among the different types of experiences that can be created with immersive technologies. This, in their view, could help with developing a specific terminology for issues like in-betweenness. As Interviewee 8 explained regarding the concept of immersion, the mechanism and experience of immersion is very different if we compare AR, VR, and immersive projection: ‘This term should somehow play with the fact that [immersion in AR] is physical. You're more engaged with the [physical] world because you get additional content and additional features () [We need to] make it clear to people that this is kind of like one of the core differences between augmented reality and virtual reality.’ And Interviewee 5 agreed: ‘[AR experience] feels seamless to reality, it's even more immersive than just having a lot of visuals, so we shouldn’t agree to just putting all eggs into one basket.’ Many argued that the key difference here is that the physical context is of high importance for the visualisations and overlays in location-specific experiences. However, such an approach can be considered limiting as it restricts immersion to physical experience overlooking other types of immersion as spatial or narrative. Moreover, as we explore further, physicality can play an important role in VR experiences as well,; therefore, physical immersiveness cannot be considered AR-exclusive, which makes the issue even more complex.


Interviewee 3 suggested that ‘augmented reality is more about these virtual worlds interacting with the physical world.’ In practical terms, this implies that: ‘The essence [of AR location-based experiences] is that it's not just a layer on top of something. It starts becoming something meaningful when it actually takes place in and changes things in these physical realities’ (Interviewee 10). The notion of in-betweenness, therefore, implies that the success of experience execution relies on the liaison of the visual andand the real, while assigning the space with an important (if not a key) role in their interaction.


Inseparability

The problem of identifying spaces of experience is not exclusively relevant to AR applications, but can also apply to other kinds of mixed-reality art experiences. Paula Strunden, multisensory mixed-reality designer, who was one of our interviewees [1], created a location-based VR experience, Micro-Utopia: The Imaginary Potential of Home. The installation ‘proposes a shared, immersive, and interactive version of a home, where space is born from the finely-tuned sensorial interplay between the body and virtual/physical objects connected to the Internet of Things’ (micro-utopia.org). In our conversation, Strunden highlighted that not enough attention is given to phenomenological accounts of space (both in the context of art production and consumption), meaning, how we interact with and perceive the space, as well as how visitors will experience it. ‘Our spatial perception does not only consist of what we see through our eyes, but we perceive it very strongly by a sound that the spaces emits, the smell it has, by the tactilities …, like materials, texture, your very own locomotion … So, I think this more phenomenological understanding has a lot to do with embodiment and the presence of your body within that space. And understanding your environment through your body.’ [2] This notion is visible in Strunden’s works. In Micro-Utopia, a visitor explores designed physical spaces with a VR headset on, but can move within both physical and virtual spaces to explore objects placed there. Only the virtual space can be seen, while the physical space can be experienced with all the other senses. This makes the experience of space multi-layered, where physical and virtual realities become inseparable for providing full sense of the installation, and where experience space(s) cannot be investigated in isolation from one another.


Micro-Utopia trailer © Paula Strunden


Axonometric drawing of tactile objects encapsulating virtual spaces upon being touched by the 'inhabitant', Micro-Utopia: The Imaginary Potential of Home, Paula Strunden, 2018.


The experience challenges visitors’ perceptions of realness and questions again the idea of ‘presence.’ In this case, the visitor is able to grasp the physical objects, however, the objects experienced with touch are not identical to the objects experienced with vision.


The inseparability of an experience, which occurs in parallel in both physical and and virtual worlds, challenges definitions of three-dimensional space and augmented space (which lacks physical spatiality) by bonding them into one multidimensional, meaning-laden place through the visitor’s simultaneous interaction with both. At the same time, inseparability provokes the question of how such parallel spaces should be labelled, explored, and assessed in both design and research.


(Un)realness

‘Being able to add these digital elements kind of creates a layer of magic on top of the physical world’ (Interviewee 6)


In mixed-reality experiences, the goal is often to create an impression that the digital objects belong to the ‘real’ and are naturally placed in a physical space of experience. However, it is often the case that the ‘magical layer,’ as mentioned by one the interviewees, is perceived as unreal and in strong opposition to the physical world. This poses challenges for creating and perceiving new experience spaces that merge the virtual and the real (Interviewee 3, 8, 12 and 14).


In popular discourse, the realness of mixed-reality experiences is often linked to believability, which is challenged by public opinion, as explained by our interviewees: ‘Sometimes you have those people who are just disappointed with the experience. They come with really high expectations about (what they imagine as) realness of the experience, and then they realise that the experience didn’t place them, let’s say, in Haiti, and they didn’t actually leave a gallery for a moment, then well, they really challenge the idea of the installation’ (Interviewee 14). The interviewees linked the problem of mismatched expectations about realness with what they considered to be a common misconception about mixed-reality and VR experiences. People expect high levels of immersiveness from mixed-reality experiences, which they confuse with the virtual worlds offered by VR. As one of the interviewees (3) explained: 'It's not about forgetting the reality, it's more about forgetting that this is a projection … It is a lot about believing in the content that you're being exposed to and trusting it and acting upon the laws of that content and accepting as part of reality.’ Therefore, the goal of the creators is not necessarily to make a visitor forget about the ‘outside’ world (as it is desirable with the VR-driven immersion), but to achieve the correct placement in the context of offered experience, which will make it more ‘reality-like.’ As another Interviewee explained:


If you are in your own living room and you use the app that allows [you] to place a lion just there, you really need to make sure to include the space context. You cannot scale the lion to the space, you want to see real-life-size animal standing there between your sofa and a table. We could say this is the first step towards believability. Then you probably would like to add more sensual experience, so the lion could roar, when he sees you. And finally, if you can make this lion jump in on your table, then you probably can make the user really invested in the experience. Will they be immersed? Probably. Will they forget about their special context of being in their own home? They shouldn’t. The same goes for [art] exhibitions – you want to embrace the space and make it matter. (Interviewee 14)

This can be linked to the concept of immersion, which is not so much bound to digital realism, but instead describes a human state of mind that arises from being engrossed in a particular activity, and can be understood as a gradual cognitive state of engagement building toward the stages of flow and presence (Jennett et al., 2008). This implies that if an AR application is helpful to fulfil a particular task, a user might fully immerse himself in the AR to complete the task as efficiently as possible; this refers to the concept of challenge-based immersion (Gámez, 2009).


In this sense, it can be said that technologies, like augmentation technologies, aim to merge spaces rather than push for deep engrossment in the experience space (Interviewee 3). This opposes the virtual, enclosed notion of immersion, and implies that the visitor maintains awareness of the real world in his or her experience, and is constantly aware of the proximal happenings while participating. Evident here is the link to Milgram and Kishino’'s (1994) reality-virtuality continuum, which arranges different immersive technologies according to their degree of immersion in a synthetic virtual environment. AR is located at the end of the spectrum, as it features no or low immersion in a fully synthetic, digital environment while the user is immersed in the real, physical world.


Moreover, the majority of our interviewees linked the issue of believability with the inseparability of experience and space, pointing to multisensuality, which is a design principle that can often be overlooked in the design process. In the discussion, most of the practitioners highlighted the contextual and phenomenological use of space as crucial for the creation of believable experiences, but some (Interviewee 3, 8 and 13) discussed the need to offer the opportunity for spatial and social interaction within the experience. As explained by one of the experts: 'AR really makes the world adjust around you. And that's the contextual aspect where [the object] targets you, but it also has to satisfy everyone else, because everyone sees the same thing' (Interviewee 3). The findings suggest that the ability of AR to enable shared experiences plays an integral role in generating believability and driving immersion. Different users of the same AR experience witness the same digital content but from different perspectives and through separate AR devices. The emerging social consistency increases visitors’ belief in the realness of the augmented content if all users experience the same content. This implies that if several users witness the same augmented content, they are more inclined to forget about the fact that the content is virtual and accept it as more believable and real (Interviewee 3).


In research practice, the problem lays in the enduring distinction between ‘real’ and ‘virtual,’ and in how to approach the ‘unreal’ as an object of inquiry. If researchers understand augmented spaces (and in consequence, augmented experiences) through this distinction between real physical space and not-so-real digital overlays, they may treat the immaterial differently, ‘by supposing that virtual worlds and the subjects and communities acting within them are ontologically less than “real”’ (de Castell, Jenson and Taylor, 2014: 8). Therefore, they may feel licensed to behave or participate differently than they would in ethnographic research contexts in the 'real world’ (de Castell, Jenson and Taylor, 2014). Following this logic, visitor engagement and interaction would be assessed differently than it would be for experiences taking place solely in a physical environment. Therefore, there is a danger of distorting anthropological observations of people’s reactions and behaviours in those hybrid environments, which de Castell, Jenson and Taylor (2014) argue could undermine research integrity at its foundations as the ontological ambiguity subjects scholars to allegations of intrusive or misleading scientific methods, as well as accusations of "disguised observation" (Erikson 1967 as cited by de Castell, Jenson and Taylor, 2014).


Final thoughts

In this article, we have explored three challenges in defining the experience space in mixed-reality art experiences based on the accounts of our interviewees. In our mapping, we have identified the issues of (1) in-betweenness, (2) inseparability, and (3) (un)realness. The concepts are strongly correlated with each other and can be used to describe the problem of elusiveness of space in mixed-reality environments. In-betweenness can be defined as the impression that the content of the installation is ‘hung’ in-between the real and virtual worlds, leading to the perception of the (un)realness of the experience. (Un)realness can be understood as seeing digital overlay in strong opposition to the physical world, onto which it is projected, and therefore, perceiving it as less authentic than the ‘real’ space. This, in turn, can lead to the perceived lack of believability and truthfulness of the entire experience. Both concepts link to the idea of the inseparability of the physical and virtual realities within the phenomenological experience of the installation. Inseparability describes the merging of virtual and physical worlds through multisensory experience, leading to a meaningful interdependency of the virtual content and the physical space.


It can be concluded that the relation between augmenting technologies and their immediate spatial context is highly interdependent and has profound implications for the purpose of augmentation, the user experience, and its ability to mediate the sense of place. While literature that aims at defining AR technology (Azuma, 1997; Carmigniani and Furht, 2011; Milgram and Kishino, 1994) generally neglects AR’s ability to negotiate the reciprocal flow of data between media and user in the process of experience space creation, this study points out its importance in alignment with Manovich’s (2006) assumption about the augmented space. Strikingly, Azuma’'s (1997) fundamental definition of AR addresses the importance of including all human sensual stimuli in experience creation, but this is often overlooked in conceptualisations of AR and other augmenting technologies, as well as numerous handbooks for designing with AR and VR, which leaves young designers ‘wandering in the fog of experiments’ (Interviewee 13). Therefore, this research stresses the importance of mutlisensuality in describing the spatial aspects of augmented experiences and calls for rethinking the conceptual grid, which will allow designers and researchers alike to move more freely in the area of experience design, and help us to understand visitors’ behaviours in the spaces of experience, as well as the interdependencies between visitors, spaces, and content.


Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research under Grant KI.18.044.


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Notes

[1] The interviewee allowed for not concealing her identity in the context of her work exploration.

[2] The phenomenological approach to space was also highlighted by other interviewees (2, 8 and 12).