Spatial UI Design: Tips and Best Practices
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Spatial cognition is our brain’s ability to understand our bodies in relation to the space around us. It lets us judge distances, know directions and navigate.
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This ability allows us to intuit physics and geometry and gives us a sense of direction. Without it, we would be unable to navigate, catch thrown objects, or generally function. Spatial cognition strongly activates memory. Activating spatial cognition can significantly improve a person's memory.
Spatial cognition "hacks" are tools that memory athletes use to perform incredible acts of recollection. It is an essential brain function and of particular interest in spatial UIs, such as augmented and virtual reality.
Spatial Perception: Spatial perception is the ability to perceive and interpret spatial relationships between objects, locations, and ourselves. It allows us to recognize objects in space, understand distances, and perceive depth and perspective.
Spatial Memory: Spatial memory encodes, stores, and retrieves spatial information. It's how we remember the locations of objects, landmarks, and routes. Spatial memory plays a crucial role in navigation and wayfinding.
Spatial Reasoning: Spatial reasoning lets us make logical predictions of objects in space. This ability enables us to understand geometric properties and transformations. We use spatial reasoning to predict a ball's trajectory and catch it. We can also visualize what a bowl might look like if it were twice as large or upside down.
Spatial Problem-Solving: Spatial problem-solving uses spatial information and reasoning to complete tasks. This process can include finding the shortest route between two points, assembling objects, or interpreting maps and diagrams.
Our brains evolved to understand the physical world before we learned to remember abstract thoughts. This is why some people have learned to trick the brain into activating spatial memory.
The ancient Greeks developed a method called "the method of loci." Essentially, the person creates an imaginary space called a "memory palace," where they store their memories as imaginary physical objects.
Maps and other navigation interfaces are typical examples of how interfaces activate the brain processes associated with spatial cognition. However, most two-dimensional interfaces utilize it less.
Three-dimensional interfaces, like video games, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), activate this brain process.
The tradeoff is that unrealistic physics, perspective and proportions can be particularly disorienting in AR and VR. More realistic environments will activate spatial cognition more powerfully.
Take our course on UX Design for Augmented Reality.
Read this blog on exploring spatial cognition in VR: Spatial Cognition — Making Virtual Spaces.
For the cutting edge on partial cognition research, explore the work of the Tufts Spatial Cognition Lab.
This fascinating study used AR to improve participants' spatial cognition: Augmented Reality (AR) and Spatial Cognition: Effects of Holographic Grids on Distance Estimation and Location Memory in a 3D Indoor Scenario.
Here’s the entire UX literature on Spatial Cognition by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
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