What the mind’s eye sees…..
November 3, 2021 – By Tim Burch
If we introduce children who have an interest in visualization of puzzles, art and mathematics to the appropriate training methods, we can help train future STEM students that could turn into our next generation of surveyors and geospatial professionals.
Many of us who were children before computers, the internet, and lots of electronic gadgets used our imagination to create fantasy worlds and environments. Many of these visions were drawn on paper using pencils, crayons and paints to recreate those images so we could share them with others. While the world in which we live, work and play exists in three dimensions, our minds were kept to a two-dimensional level because of how ideas and visions were made possible only on flat surfaces or media.
Surveying has been no different through the centuries. Surveyors have generally divided their work into two categories: land boundaries and topography. Typically, the surveying process of parcel establishment and retracement has been a two-dimensional task, while topographic surveys utilize elevations to determine relief and drainage patterns. This survey information was drawn as graphic depictions on paper to provide the pertinent data to users. It has been generally impossible to express survey data, including boundaries and topography, in a three-dimensional form as the human eye sees it. Many different professions have tried to present information beyond the second dimension but with little success.
The beginning of the imagery revolution
In the 1800s, the invention of photography brought a new medium into our world by capturing images of still life onto a two-dimensional format. Photographs, when taken at a proper angle and lighting, helped establish depth to an image, but only if taken in the right context and for the correct purpose. The 1830s brought us the stereoscope, utilizing two slightly different versions of the same photograph to be viewed through a binocular device and “tricking the brain” into establishing depth within the image. This is one of the first examples of using a visual technique to teach our brain to gather 3D information based upon a 2D image or dataset.
The 1800s also brought us the “motion picture” or movie as we traditionally know it. Ranging from 16 to 24 frames per second and using varying methods to “flash” through a sequence of progressing images, the movie brought another new medium into our world. While silent films were the predominant movie type, several inventors conceived varying ways to produce movies in three dimensions. The most popular type was the stereoscope movie, but moviegoers found it too cumbersome to sit behind a stationary set of stereoscope glasses for the length of the film.
Another innovation from the 1890s was the creation of the anaglyph. This viewing style required glasses with a red lens for the left eye and a blue lens for the right eye to view two negative images that form a stereoscopic subject. These images remained popular well into the 20th century, with the concept crossing over into films.
Image: clavivs/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Artistic interpretation and presentation
It is one thing to see an object in real life and make a mental note of what it looks like from varying angles. It is another thing to accurate depict the same object on a two-dimensional medium that gives the viewer the same perspective of the real object. Artists who can simulate depth on an otherwise flat media with drawings and paintings are rare; one of the most famous is M.C. Escher (1898–1972), a Dutch artist known worldwide for his “impossible” drawings and sketches based upon mathematical figures. He had a gift of seeing his art in three dimensions and translating it to various mediums.
But not every drawing is an artistic interpretation. Ideas that come to fruition in an inventor’s mind often get drawn to scale on paper for sharing with others. Mechanical engineers often used a system known as isometric drafting, a method of drawing a three-dimensional item to join an isometric view, giving the shape within the drawing a sense of depth.
Toys and games as training tools
Little did we realize as children and young adults that many of the inventions for imagery led to many popular toys in our history. For instance, the View Master was invented in 1938 and widely introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This toy turned the stereoscope concept into a sightseeing treasure. In the 1960s, the photographic reels viewed within the View Master began featuring television, movie and cartoon characters in various storylines. It is estimated that more than 1.5 billion reels have been produced covering sites and subjects from every corner of Earth.
There have also been many variations on the optical illusions designed to make one see a certain image, then suddenly see something completely different. One significant entry in the illusion category is Magic Eye, a series of images based upon single-image random-dot stereograms, or autostereograms. These images utilize computer graphics to “hide” a 3D image within patterns of other shapes and trick your brain into focusing on the hidden subject. After more than 25 years and hundreds of millions of copies of its books, Magic Eye is still challenging people to “see” objects in three dimensions.
However, the biggest training device for seeing 3D objects in a 2D medium happened within the same timeframe and has no plans for slowing down any time soon: video games. The video game platform has reinvented itself several times in its short life, but the premise behind the visualization remains the same. Some of the systems allow for virtual reality glasses or goggles to enhance the user’s experience.
“Yes, in fact, my child is gifted…”
The scientific term for this visual ability is called spatial intelligence. Spatial intelligence has and attracted attention in recent years for helping determine a person’s strengths and capabilities. Spatial intelligence, also known as spatial reasoning, is one of the nine intelligence’s in the Theory of Multiple Intelligences proposed by psychologist Howard Gardner. In his theory, Gardner challenged the narrow definition of general intelligence with his proposal of nine types of intelligences:
Often, we know people who display various traits as defined within this list of intelligence’s. Someone with linguistical intelligence is well-spoken, enjoys reading and writing, and can explain a situation or story well. A person with logical-mathematical intelligence solves difficult computations and is a tremendous problem solver. Musical intelligence is found in one who is a “natural” at playing a musical instrument or singing. The pattern continues with the rest of the list and helps to establish strengths within one’s abilities. Most of the intelligence’s are born within a person, while a few can be somewhat taught. Finding the people with the strongest abilities in a given trait leads us to the highest performers.
Spatial intelligence is observed in those who like to draw, design or build things, and are quick to mentally manipulate objects to solve puzzles. David Lohman, a researcher who has spent most of his career studying the subject, defines spatial intelligence as “the ability to generate, retain, retrieve and transform well-structured visual images.” Individuals with highly developed spatial intelligence have a unique ability to view objects and imagine them in rotated positions or different angles, and how a group of items can fit together.
How important is spatial intelligence as a teachable subject?
In the past, having spatial intelligence was a naturally occurring trait. Important figures in history, including Picasso and da Vinci, are a few examples of individuals with high spatial intelligence. Clinical research, however, has determined this ability to be a skill that is actually trainable in many instances. If we introduce children who have an interest in visualization of puzzles, art and mathematics to the appropriate training methods, we can help train future STEM students that could turn into our next generation of surveyors and geospatial professionals. By employing a spatial component into lessons and challenging students through visual tasks, they begin to identify objects and other matter into geometrical patterns and spatial relationships. Students who display these spatial characteristics are better at critical thinking and problem solving, which in turn gives them more self-confidence.
Another important characteristic of spatial intelligence is that gender does not play a large role. Studies have shown that with training and a challenging curriculum, both boys and girls are prone to excel at gaining more spatial awareness and ability to solve problems. The key to maintaining this equality in spatial intelligence is to provide equal education and training for both genders in the formative years. Often, only boys are steered toward sports, math and science while girls are directed to the arts and humanities. By providing all children with the opportunity to experience spatial learning, they will begin to build skills that will help them for a lifetime.
What does spatial intelligence have to do with GNSS and surveyors?
It has everything to do with geospatial data! Literally all survey data collected these days is geospatial in nature and contains three-dimensional coordinate values. Why is the evolution of seeing 3D objects in 2D spaces so important? Not everyone can visualize these shapes immediately in two dimensions. If we are able to identify those with strong spatial intelligence levels, we can steer them into the many variations of geospatial fields and surveying.
Previously, our surveying profession dealt with data collection in small doses. A good day of topographic surveying might see a crew collect 1,000- to 2,000 points. (Not to mention the days before data collectors!) Because the area covered within the day’s work was significant, the surveyor did not have to look at a “big picture” of terrain and improvements. These smaller chunks, even though they were collected with elevations, were plotted in 2D. The contours drawn using the points were simply grade proportions between points and did not produce a 3D effect.
Fast forward to the surveying instruments and CAD software in today’s work environment. Remote sensing through UAV-mounted, vehicle-mounted and terrestrial-based instruments collect thousands to millions of points (per second in most cases), and we get the resulting point clouds produced by these instruments. It is equally important to see the spatial relationship of the terrain, improvements and overall site conditions for both the surveyor and the CAD technician. We now have data that literally blankets the surface of the subject site, and it is up to both field staff and office staff to correctly interpret that data for the prospective client. Having surveyors and technicians with a reasonable sense of spatial intelligence gives the data a better chance of correct interpretation and depiction.
Many STEM industry experts are beginning to work with researchers on creating more educational curriculum based upon the various intelligence categories previously discussed. Spatial intelligence will continue to increase as an influencing factor in helping students decide on their career choices. Having our educational system also increase the amount of spatial relationship curriculum within their core teachings, we can help grow our potential STEM professionals and technicians for generations to come.
While many professions and occupations continue to struggle in anticipation of their future need for employees, the surveying and geospatial professions can help do something about it now. Encourage your kids to play video games, fly their drones, play sports, and solve complex problems. Playing and learning today may help them with their future profession. If not, they can enjoy themselves while they can. Don’t we all wish we were kids again some days?