Spatial Language in Computer Mediated Communication

Spatial Language in Computer Mediated Communication

Shaun Lawson (University of Lincoln, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-020-2.ch013
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People use spatial language in everyday face-to-face conversation, and we also now use such language during everyday computer-mediated interactions. Commonly, such interactions can take place over mobile phones or in shared virtual environments such as multiplayer games. However, to date, very few academic studies have looked at how people’s use and understanding of spatial language might differ when it is computer mediated. Our own experimentation has investigated the relation between the uses of route, survey, and also gaze perspectives in a simple virtual environment.
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Spatial language is used by people to describe the spatial relationships between objects in an environment. For instance, we often use phrases such as “the mobile phone is to the left of the coffee mug,” or “I am standing in front of the church.” In order to guide another person to a goal, people can give each other directives that also make use of spatial language such as “take the next turning right” or “wait under the big blue sign.” Spatial and directional language has been studied extensively in cognitive psychology when given verbally or in writing (e.g., Levelt, 1982; Taylor, & Tversky, 1992 1996; Tversky, Lee, & Mainwaring, 1999), and even when given in sign language and iconic gesturing (e.g., Emmorey, Tversky, & Taylor, 2000). There is no easily definable set of grammar that is used to construct spatial language, though it frequently makes use of prepositions: “the phone is on the table,” or “I am under the sign,” for instance. We are also flexible in the way that we use spatial language: when viewing a scene, for instance, people necessarily have a perspective on it (Tversky, 1994), but we can free ourselves from this and we are able to put ourselves in other perspectives, such as that of another person. This can be useful (for instance when giving directions), but how, when, and why we switch between perspectives is an open research topic, as we shall discuss later in this chapter.

We use spatial language everyday in abundance and in many contexts, for instance, we are all familiar with giving people directions to our home, office, or a mutual meeting place. Sometimes these interactions take place off-line, such as when we wish to give directions to someone who we are to meet at a particular location later that day, or just as frequently, they can take place online or in real time, such as when we are a passenger in a car and are directing the driver to a location that is unfamiliar to them. Following on from the latter scenario, many people are now also familiar with in-car locative GPS satellite navigation systems that use prerecorded, though location aware, segments of spatial language to direct drivers to unfamiliar locations. Indeed, examples of how technology is now being used as a platform to support interactions that use spatial language are commonplace. For instance, many people will have experienced the scenario in which, whilst waiting at a rendezvous point in a public space, the person whom we are waiting to meet actually calls on their mobile phone and a renegotiation of the meeting point takes place in real time. Such exchanges often feature phrases such as “I’m walking east towards the big white statue” and usually culminate in statements such as “can you see me now?”. This particular scenario was identified by Ling and Yttri (2002) as one of their four forms of microcoordination that people take up during mobile phone use. Mobile locative services that use spatial language are also under development for people with visual impairments, for instance, the Italian Easy Walk system generates verbal instructions for blind people based on their GPS-derived location.

Another common example of discourse featuring spatial language occurs between two parties when one is driving to the other’s location; quite often in this case either one or both parties might have a two-dimensional map with them that could be referred to in their verbal exchanges. The advent of locative technology also of course makes it possible for maps to be presented on handheld digital devices in such scenarios (e.g., Kray et al., 2003). However, despite the ubiquitous established use of mobile phones, the emergence of locative applications, and a general acceptance that such technology has had a profound impact on human behaviour (e.g., see Ling, 2004), very few studies have examined conversations on mobile phones that feature spatial or directional language.

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