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The brain avoids looking at glassy skyscrapers (geneticsofdesign.com)
85 points by rsj_hn on Aug 5, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 63 comments

It turns out that the new glassy exteriors, whether boxy or round, are really tough on the brain—difficult for it to take in.

I'd say it is the exact opposite: no one will focus on flat nearly-featureless surfaces, because there is no fine detail to focus on. It's easy to "take in" at a glance, so the brain doesn't direct any more attention to it.

Also bland, badly-composed uninteresting picture -- it's all a noisy background.

Just use google images search for glass skyscrapers an repeat the experiment.

The second image doesn't have anything else in the image to look at, whereas the first has multiple buildings and plenty of sky space. This article is bollocks. They've worked backwards from a conclusion to find (bad) evidence.

As somebody who dealt with photography and cameras his whole life and took pictures as a professional for movies: this isn’t bollocks. The visual readability of an opaque non-reflective cube is always going to be higher than that of a mirror cube in a non studio environment.

This is because your brain needs to do more legwork to figure out the underlying shape when you look at reflective suefaces that are mostly flat and show you parts of a sky that you may or may not see at that point.

Reflectivity can also work in your favour, to highlight shapes, especially when the paint additionally has a diffuse color (think of cars) and they are in eye level (less confusing sky reflections), but highly reflective glass buildings with nothing else to gisually hold on will most of the time just reflect a random patch of the sky.

What visual readability is, is the answer to the question how fast and effortless a image can be read. A certain degree of unreadability may be interesting even, but I am not sure if architects are that aware of the reflective part of their buildings.

E.g. I happen to have the luck to have a second sun in the end of the day despite my east-facing windows, because one of the glas buildings opposite. I am sure they didn’t simulate that. I am also sure this increases the temperature in the city.

Most architects I met just think glas looks rad and all their collegues use it and so they do too.

> I am sure they didn’t simulate that

They actually might, after arc-shaped reflective buildings started almost literally melting cars that happened to be parked in the focus of the reflected sunlight, and some constructs had to be built in the line of that sunlight to protect the cars.




Apparently not. The same architect had previously designed the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, which suffered from the same problem. Apparently no lessons were learned.



In the city I live, there is a small building with a relatively new parabolic glass front that focuses roughly onto the pavement in front - in the winter it's rather pleasant to walk through, the summer not so much. This is only a small effect though, I imagine with larger buildings it's never desirable.

I fully agree with your observations about good or bad photography being dictated in part by its easy visual readability.

But the article presented here seems unscientific and misleading to me. They say "the brain avoids looking at" and then the "evidence" that they produce is an AI prediction generated by a closed-source (meaning unverifiable) software. It would be correct if they say "3M's prediction ignores glass skyscrapers", but that might just as well be a bug in their algorithm.

As a counter-example, the Keppler skyscrapers in harborfront Singapore are mostly made from glass to fight off the heat, yet they are pleasing to look at and have very interesting reflection patterns. And they are certainly remembered by locals as a great navigation landmark.

I think you are talking past each other. What was labelled as “bollocks” here is the scientific evidence.

Absolutely. It may be true that people look less at glass buildings than concrete ones, but the evidence they present is worthless. That doesn't mean it ISN'T true - that would be just as bad a fallacy - it just means this article isn't presenting anything compelling to back up its claim.

Ok, but at least they could have gathered a little more evidence.

Meh, it's just a blog post with overstated claims: I'd say the amount of evidence is in line with the typical startup stories posted on HN.

The thing I find most interesting is how strongly people want to defend boring glass facades.

Isn’t part of the point of reflective glass cladding to reflect the sky, disguise the building’s bulk, make it less imposing, etc?

If people’s eyes aren’t being drawn to it, then it seems like it’s succeeded at that aim.

If people's eyes aren't being drawn to it...

>Mother Nature, the architect of our perception, with a good 3.8 billion years of design experience, won’t allow it. We simply will not connect to a place she informs us isn’t there or worth looking at!

And I'd tend to agree. If the purpose of the design is to act as if there is not a building, act as if it's a non-place - then what should I remember about it? Why should I want to be there, if there's "nothing"?

This. Seriously. It compares a picture with a lot of other stuff than the glass building to look at and help our eyes "escape", to a picture where 97% of the space is the building itself. There's nothing else to look at so... yeah... This seems so biased.

/e: words

This seems ridiculous. Based on the output of an automated tool developed by 3M that produces a saliency map based on an image, I'm not sure how we can conclude that people ignore skyscrapers.

I don't believe the article makes this claim. It's not about people actually ignoring the skyscrapers, but rather the low-level layers of the brain tagging them as not worth looking at. This sounds plausible - glassy skyscrapers look a lot like the sky, which isn't very interesting to look at.

No, this is wrong. In reality there's no link between the claim in the article and the way that the human visual system processes its input. The article is trying to make a leap between the output of some algorithm, and what the human visual system does.


I guess there is no disagreement. The evidence is indeed worthless.

Still the hypothesis is interesting and plausible. Maybe there is a way to test it more rigorously, this time based on actual eye tracking.

3M put out a validation study[1] of their algorithm, an algorithm explicitly created to simulate what the eye does, and it seems to do ok compared to real eye tracking data in the example shown.

Where is your evidence that it was all completely faked?

[1] http://multimedia.3m.com/mws/media/1006827O/3msm-visual-atte...

They strapped people with a headset that tracks their eyes and told them to look at something. The brain will naturally then try to find the special thing the wearer thinks the researchers want them to look at to get a good result. Probably the sky, not the boring buildings.

no. they used a smartphone app that is trying to predict where people would look.

It's a smartphone app in the same sense that any app frontend is a smartphone app: a not very relevant sense.

You can find some more details in their validation study: http://multimedia.3m.com/mws/media/1006827O/3msm-visual-atte...

I fully agree. The author seems to confuse "this AI predicts" with "the human brain does".

Looking at the quality of image recognition AI, for example the famous guacamole/cat or panda/gun mis-predictions, that's a very far stretch.


I used to work on training a saliency-predicting NN and apart from "color and texture are great" it didn't learn much. So I would bet that taking a picture of the same building with a colorful sunset in your back, so that the sun's colors are reflected on the building but not visible in the sky, would generate a hugely different result.

How does the software work? Seam carving style "energy functions" or neural networks? If it's neural networks how did they train it? Eye tracker?

It seems to be old fashioned image processing using expert created feature extractors and such.


Validation data is eye tracking


My guess is a CNN trained to produce a mask that matches the output of some eye tracker on a specifically solicited task. As another poster observed, strapping someone in and asking them to "act natural" probably introduces some unwanted bias.

This resonates with some of my experiences.

When I had a corporate job, I worked in a large glassy building that wasn't a skyscraper. It was initially one story -- though tall for just one story because it was industrial scale and held more than a thousand employees (about two thousand, at least after the addition).

The one story building reflected the sea of blacktop parking lots around it and appeared ominously black.

They added a two-story addition to one end and moved my department there. It became clearer that the building appeared to be ominously black because of what it reflected. The taller part reflected the sky while its base still seemed ominously black.

It became even clearer that this was so when they built a three-story building next door to house the IT department. That building mostly looked like floating clouds and blue sky. Very little of it seemed visually heavy and ominously dark.

But they were equally hard to mentally process. It was hard to comprehend these buildings whose appearance morphed based on what was being reflected. It was hard to figure out where they began and ended, what they were made of, etc.

It was not only disorienting, it was disturbing. It was a bit like working in a fun house mirror.

> It’s equally instructive to see how the older parts of the Seaport (above) original 19th-C commercial buildings on Seaport Boulevard, for instance, fit well within the city.

Cherry picking. The sample images are misleading at best. First one is mainly three buildings with quite some space around like sky and ground, even more buildings in the back. Second one is basically only the facade of one building. Sure there is a car, a bit of street and even some sky. But really there is not much else to look at.

I love 4 WTC, for some reason its extra-mirrory, really tall with a flat roof, from the street it often looks like it disappears.

https://42floors.com/images/H596cc3895888f38019aee71d9a21247... https://42floors.com/images/H2ace7a05db1517e4a6726532b38d4e6... https://42floors.com/images/Hc03b5fe9133b1ba7b10f11d22531e87...

I can't help but wonder how much of this is influenced by the lighting and composition of the photo. Both your examples and those in the article.

I'm generally not a fan of the all-glass architecture, or even modern architecture in general, and prefer buildings made of stone, and preferably on a human scale, like 19th and early 20th century architecture. After the War, buildings became featureless and soulless, and when architects started making them look good from a distance or from the sky, and not up close. Designed to look good as a model but not something for real people to live in.

Recent years have fortunately seen a return to more sensible architecture.

Yes definitely that second pic is probably not great. One thing I think it does benefit from is being surrounded by other tall buildings, so often you can only see it from very close up and its that view in the first photo that I see nearly every day.

Should we flag this post? The "science" presented in this article is so bad it deserves being called fake news.

Like the commenters mentioned:

- the photos are chosen in such a way that it's obvious eyes won't go looking into the buildings

- there is no mention of the sample size regarding participants and photos that were shown. looks like cherrypicking

Flagging should be removed from HN, or at least give an option to un-flag. Its a good interesting article.

You stated your opinion in your comment. Why do you need to flag the post?

Isn't it simply brain looking at the edges of things? If a building doesn't have edges inside it then we look at its silhouette.

The author shows how for more classical buildings with more structure, the eye focus on the structural aspects of the buildings.

No, the author shows that some random computer vision tool focuses on more structural aspects of the buildings. Assuming that is related at all to what "the eye" does is ridiculous.

Assuming that a tool explicitly created to simulate visual human behaviour would do exactly that doesn't seem very strange.

You can look at their validation study, it does ok: http://multimedia.3m.com/mws/media/1006827O/3msm-visual-atte...

In a much tighter image. The last picture with the older building gives the viewer almost no choice to look around, beyond, or even above the building when compared to the first one. There may be some truth to the statement in the title, but these three images are not evidence of much.

Take a look at the referenced study. There's quite a large number of examples where you have plenty of room to look around.

(pdf) http://www.devensec.com/news/Eye_Tracking_Devens_1_11_18%20r...

> the eye focus on the structural aspects of the buildings

which are mostly edges

I like glassy buildings. Can stare at them for minutes; the article makes little sense to me. E.g. Hong Kong Harbour skyline, which is quite "glassy". Many people travel to take a look at it.

[1] https://www.tripsavvy.com/thmb/SPLQhcPHF_u06LNEFd1qIc4p_3Q=/...

This image shows the opposite of a glassy skyline. The only true glass building, which reflects sky and water, is the one just above the boat. The rest of the buildings are more traditional sky scrapers with mixed cladding.

Maybe. But I can count something like 6 or 7 buildings on that pic which look glassy to me. I'd say there are several glassy (which reflect sky and water) buildings there [1][2].

[1] https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-7263112-panning-time...

[2] https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-27791884-victoria-ha...

Edit: added more links.

Just for fun, here's how some of OpenCV's feature detectors handle the first image:

AKAZE: https://imgur.com/EvcStcH

ORB: https://imgur.com/YHSEDD7

I certainly wouldn't make any claims about what this says about the human visual system, but at least for these two algorithms they do seem to have troubles finding interesting key points to track on the buildings.

I'm the author of this article. These are good questions and comments; evolution's preset the way we take in surroundings and brain can't 'fixate' or focus on glassy facades; eye-tracking studies and emulation software used in article, show this. You can read more studies showing this here: https://geneticsofdesign.com/2019/07/07/why-eye-track-boston... And here: https://commonedge.org/game-changing-eye-tracking-studies-re...

And if you're curious about why modern architecture is 'avoidant' here: https://commonedge.org/the-mental-disorders-that-gave-us-mod...

LMK if you have questions; always open to discussing.

The article keeps using the word 'ignore'. The brain is not ignoring the buildings, its just looking at them more subliminally.

No, the claim is explicitly that the fast visual processing parts of the brain (the subliminal processing) decides the eye should focus on something other than the buildings. That's quite clearly within the reasonable interpretation of "ignore".

Playing Devil's advocate: The glassy skyscrapers are a good design because you ignore them. So it's like they don't exist.

On a more serious note, this is kinda of an isolated part of Boston city. It's a port that requires crossing the bridge. The bigger problem is that they are building huge buildings with no connection to the subway/metro network.

Silver line goes there, but I’m not sure how useful that is.

Somehow there seems to be an application for military use here. Make a shiny tank and the enemy just won't be able to see it. Or does the shiny magic only work on civilian buildings?

Dazzle camouflage[0] was used extensively in WWI to make it difficult to see ships because they were so brightly coloured. It's not quite the same principle, but it comes close.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dazzle_camouflage

The ships were easy to see. What was hard is determining what side you were looking at and what direction they were moving. This made it more difficult to engage them.

Sorry, sloppy phrasing about an often confused topic on my part. You're quite right.

It looks like reflective surfaces are a camouflage technique, and it is used in nature (fishes, beetles,...). It makes sense: mirrors copy their environment, and I suspect it is what is happening here: the buildings reflect the blue sky behind and so the brain thinks they are the sky. And for the brain, the blue sky is probably the most uninteresting thing there is.

The problem I see with reflective camouflage is that it depends on the angle. At worst it reflects sunlight and can create flashes that can be seen from extremely far away. That's how signaling mirrors work.

If imitating the blue sky is what you want, just paint the thing blue. In fact, that part of the idea behind the "horizon blue" uniform of the French army during World War 1.

It's been done with airplanes already. Some spy planes were shiny to be less visible in low overflight during the day. That also confuses simple optical sensors.

In the first photo, it seems more like the glass facade camouflages with the sky which gives an illusion of more nature and less artificial construction.

There's not much nature there, it's just empty sky. For simple comparison of what gives a stronger nature experience, just go out into a field and compare looking straight up to looking out across the field

I agree that, in general for everyday stuff, I prefer "down to earth" stuff like the gritty NYC in the 80s or SF of today, than glitzy skyscrapers. They seem too sterile.

BUT in those photos, man, there are so many confounding variables. How about the fact that the sky is brighter than the skyscrapers, so you could be looking for where it is brighter? Secondly, there isn't much detail or variation on those "boxes", so your brain doesn't find that patch very interesting. And so on.

There are plenty of skyscrapers people notice right away, e.g. the empire state building, the space needle, etc.

Perfect design for Evilcorp hq.

Seems like the first image is just looking for the areas of highest contrast, ie the completely overexposed areas of clouds against the darker building. Meanwhile the second photo lacks any areas of significant contrast. Bleh.

Feels like the wrong conclusion in submission title to me. Glass buildings are by their nature quite uniform & featureless.

...of course the brain looks elsewhere.

And I don't think it's a given that it's a bad thing either. If you think about an ocean - people tend to look at the horizon not stare at the fairly uniform ocean surface. Nothing wrong with the ocean surface though

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