The vestibular system is located in the inner ear. This system allows balance and provides a sense of directionality. It does this by measuring the acceleration and orientation of the head and then sending signals to the brain which coordinates movement and maintains balance. The vestibular system includes a network of channels filled with fluid, as well as tiny hairs that extend into the fluid. When the head moves, the fluid moves along with it, causing the hairs to bend. The hair bending activates sensory cells, which send signals to the brain that are used to calculate the head’s motion and direction. The brain translates the stimuli to orchestrate the body’s movement and maintain balance.
Design can use the sense of equilibrioception to create a more interesting interaction with a structure or installation. We can make the body move and contort by changing the elevation and angle of walls, floors, stairs, and ramps. However, we must be careful not to throw off the user so much that there is tripping or falling. In addition, we can increase the effects to equilibrioception by using visual cues, so even the ceiling and elements out of reach of the body can be altered and changed to create a visual, sympathetic response.
Equilibrioception is rarely used in design, other than amusement attractions. The attractions effectively use the sense, and they can be a hint as to how to use the sense in other instances. Taking stairs up or down can create a sensation of turning and swirling. Allowing the floor to undulate up and down will make the body feel as if it is bobbing. Other ways we can use equilibrioception is to move the head. How can we make the head go into motion? Turning, lowering, and raising by creating visual or aural interest is one way. However, we can also force the body into other positions, such as described with proprioception.
If design were only using the sense of equilibrioception, then it would create a surprising, mysterious, yet possibly nauseating experience, because the body would not know what the next movement might be without some foresight using vision or similar. As such, there are several ways to make the body feel the sense of equilibrioception. These include: rapid translation through space, rotation, change in elevation, and a combination of these. These possible permutations would be: translation and rotation, translation and elevation change, as well as rotation and elevation change. Each of these permutations would create a different feeling and possibly emotion.
As mentioned above, most design doesn’t include equilibrioception, so it would not be surprising to not see the sense in an installation. However, the designer needs to be very careful about how the integration of the sense is accomplished, because the use without a clear narrative would seem gimmicky and odd. We should be sure that the movement of the body is appropriate with the design intent.
Some alternative uses of equilibrioception include communication of emotions, ideas, and even language. We can affect emotion with the understanding or translation of movement to convey a feeling. For example, moving upward can create the feeling of suspense and inevitability, whereas to fall can make the user feel foreboding and anxiety. Another way the sense can create feelings is to move forward, creating the feeling of progress, and in opposite, moving backward can create a feeling of frustration and regression. Rotation can also create feelings of exhilaration, or with too much speed, a sense of inebriation or loss of orientation. Then, there are several combinations which can provoke different emotions. For example, to revolve and raise can create the sense of elation, while revolving and falling can create a fateful emotion. Revolving and movement together can create a sense of confusion and loss of control, whereas the movement up and down while moving forward or backward can evoke the emotional feelings of a story, like a rollercoaster running its course.
We can change an existing structure to create moments of equilibrioception by speeding or slowing the movement of the body through the space. This can include changing the speed of an elevator, but it could also be the encouragement of the user to move swiftly up or down a stair by drawing the eye and interest through the vertical circulation. This can occur with varying or changing points of interest, morphing ornament, or access to exterior or interior moments of action or change. Furthermore, we can accentuate the shape of a space by changing the elevation or face of floors and walls to create physical adjustments as the body moves through the space.
Ultimately, equilibrioception can be one of the most visceral senses to design with because it makes the body change its position and orientation in space. This change conveys or evokes emotion, which will affect the user. The designer needs to ensure there is a clear intent or narrative otherwise the use of equilibrioception can seem cheap or inappropriate. However, with careful application, equilibrioception will be an amazing source of interest and experience. More design should use the sense of equilibrioception–it does not only need to be for rides and attractions.