Stefan Sonvilla-Weiss – Personal Spaces in Real and Virtual World Interactions


With the notion of space many people spontaneously make associations with their immediate surroundings. This so-called personal space is the region surrounding each person or that area we think of as something that belongs solely to ourselves.By the end of 2008, half of the world’s 6.7 billion people will live in urban areas, according to a recent report by the United Nations. As the space around us becomes denser, people with wealth will search for new ways to separate themselves from the masses. Therefore interest in the issue of personal space — that invisible force field around your body — is intensifying in both real and virtual world contexts.

What can be concluded from actual research findings suggests that a major part of virtual world inhabitants feel physiologi­cally uncomfortable about breaking the rules, social norms and real-life stereotypes. Human nature may be the same no matter what brand new world we discover. The appeal “don’t stand so close to me” goes hand in hand with the so-called “elevator effect”. Recent studies found that misbehavior creates the same discomfort no matter whether it happens in real or in virtual life.

In this context it is no surprise that Edward T. Hall’s observations and research of nonver­bal communication or proxemic behavior categories from the late 1950s gain fresh momentum in virtual societies. Another important aspect relates to interferences and dis­turbances caused by intervention in public and private spaces with mobile technologies. We are acting in the public sphere, handling private or professional phone calls, and simultaneously entering a set of personal and electronic networks. We also experience that the borders between institutional settings, social systems, individual roles and intersubjective relationships are becoming a) more permeable, insofar as components of one sphere can more easily enter the other; b) more flexible to the degree that the extension of different spheres can be varied ac­cording to current situations and needs; and c) more interpen­etrating (or “blending”), insofar as role activities may expand and belong to different domains at the same time.
This paper seeks to produce some of the pertaining arguments coming from the art/media/education research sphere on how the extension of physical space will affect individual and collective behavioral patterns in either modes of switching between real and virtual identities, aug­menting sensory perception of real-life objects with retinal pro­jected images, or being entirely immersed in 3D data spaces.


Stefan Sonvilla-Weiss is professor of eLearning in Visual Culture and head of the international MA-program ePedagogy Design - Visual Knowledge Building at the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

He studied philosophy, graphics, art and design education and communication theory in Salzburg and Vienna (MA, PhD). The last 20 years he worked as art and design teacher, media artist, graphic designer, author, multimedia-developer and university teacher. He has been involved in several art and design related e-learning initiatives, managing the design, content creation and media-didactical concepts.

His research interests are in the visual knowledge building in collaborative learning processes, and the media-didactical implications how technology, pedagogy and organizational structure influence and constrain each other in the process of educational change. He has served as external assessor and reviewer for a number of scientific and research bodies, including the European Commission in the Programmes IST, eLearning, Media, Erasmus, etc. and has received several honours and scholarships. His latest publications include: (IN)VISIBLE. Learning to Act in the Metaverse. Springer Wien/NewYork (August 2008); Art, Science and Education. In: Mel Alexenberg (ed.) Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology and Culture. University of Chicago Press, 2008. Medien-Bildungs Sampling. In: Iwan Pasuchin (ed.) Intermediale künstlerische Bildung. koaped: München 2007.

Stefan Sonvilla-Weiss

Professor, PhD
Head of MA ePedagogy Design-Visual Knowledge Building

University of Art and Design Helsinki/TAIK
Taideteollinen korkeakoulu
Hämeentie 135 C
FIN-00560 Helsinki, Finland