Zoomscapes

In the book The View from the Road, authors Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch and John Myer explore the experience of highway travel and the design of highways as an art. The graphic design of the book is exquisite. It’s a large format work, filled with dozens of image sequences analyzing existing highways along with visualizations interpreting the sensation of motion.

The View from the Road

What caught my eye was the way the authors communicate these “zoomscapes” (a term coined by Mitchell Schwarzer). The image sequences throughout the book are presented vertically and designed to be read from bottom to top (there’s a small arrow to indicate the direction). Although this is a bit counter-intuitive, I think it better corresponds to the way we read landscapes in real life; from foreground to background.

The authors experimented with film as a method for capturing these highway sequences. There are technical problems to filming from an automobile (the book was published in 1964) but even with advances in technology, their objection to film is largely based on human perception:

Movies may be taken of existing highway sequences, either at normal speed or at exagerated speeds, to convey in brief the essentials of the major visual effects. We have made a number of such films, which are quite useful in conveying the sense of motion. There are technical problems for the camera to prevent vibration, but the most serious difficulty is the inherent difference between the camera and the human eye.

The eye has a very small angle of acute vision, coupled with a very broad angle of hazy vision. It perceives the details of objects by searching the visual field in a quick irregular motion, while sensing the spatial relationships of the whole field partly by means of blurred, peripheal sight. The camera, on the other hand, is a staring eye of uniformly acute vision over an angle of moderate size.

In one way, it records too much, if we want to simulate the workings of a human eye; in another way, it records too little by reducing peripheal vision. Furthermore, its center of attention does not leap from object to object as does the eye. There are also other differences, such as the absence of binocular vision and a fixed rather than a variable depth of focus; but these seem to be less important here.

The net effect of these differences is that a movie, taken while looking ahead along a road from a moving platform, looks “flat” to us, and seems to be taken either from a tunnel or with blinders on. Its attention appears to be fixed with insane intensity. It can have a hypnotic effect and will exagggerate such features as road curvature, traffic, or the visual “growth” of objects at the roadside. It will neglect many other elements, such as the sense of total space, or the appearance of more distant objects in the landscape which are not directly ahead.

Fortunately, they devised an accessible graphic technique for communicating the sequences, otherwise I’d probably have to track down a 16mm projector.

I’ve reproduced three of the image sequences below:

The sequences are presented from bottom to top. Click the start button to automatically scroll the sequences (or you can do this manually, starting from the bottom). This approximates the feeling of scanning the sequences in the book, although the printed versions are easier to digest.

As an alternative to video, I think this visualization technique could be useful for communicating certain aspects of service encounters, particularly approaches and departures.




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