Biophilic Illusions of Nature™:
Inside Sky Factory's Healing Imaginarium

For over a decade, a dedicated troupe of artists and engineers at the Sky Factory have been designing beautiful virtual portals to nature for enclosed healthcare environments—MRI suites, reception areas, patient rooms—anywhere daylight is not accessible. By skillfully combining nature's visual artistry, leveraging leading-edge digital technology and applying key cognitive principles, the company is adept at creating remarkable virtual skylights denominated biophilic illusions of nature™. But what's behind Sky Factory's theatre of perception?

The visual arts have a long history of testing the boundaries of spatial perception. Dating back to Greco-Roman times, skilled artists tricked the eye (and mind) into interpreting painted architectural features in murals as three dimensional structures when in fact, they were two-dimensional illusions. Centuries later, during the early Renaissance, artists painted windows in walls and cupolas in ceilings to striking effect, blurring the line between architecture and illusion through the insightful combination of contrast, scale and perspective.

Andrea Mantegna, Di sotto in sù ceiling fresco in the Camera degli Sposi of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua

The more visual artists learned, the more sophisticated their works became, fooling observers into seeing 'depth' in the flatness of a wall or ceiling. At the same time, magicians, the ultimate scoundrels in the performance arts, amassed a fascinating body of knowledge about the fungible nature of human cognition. The more they uncovered about our ingrained habits of perception, the more sophisticated and awe-inspiring their magic illusions became.

As neuroscientists have begun to uncover, sensory illusions, whether optical or multisensory, do not occur 'out there' on the canvas or 'on stage' but rather inside our brain. Magicians, like visual artists, are master manipulators, able to set up a series of cognitive cues that our brains cannot help but correlate and link incorrectly.

Mentalists, for example, can shuffle a deck of cards, ask you to select a random card (let's call it the nine of spades) and when it shows up again and again after multiple reshuffles it seems nothing short of magical, but in reality it's our brain that cannot help but 'interpret' the visual or multisensory cues in any other way but 'magical'. Cognitively speaking, we cannot assign agency properly.

In like fashion, Sky Factory has made the design of unmistakable biophilic illusions of nature™ its magic card. Using the most sophisticated photographic equipment, its team of artists applies the master principles of composition when selecting the ideal skies to create the company's trademark Open Sky Compositions™ whose unique property evokes a palpable sense of 'open space'.

Sky Factory's biophilic illusions of nature™ trigger an automatic and highly beneficial 'relaxation response'.

The management of color temperature in light is another perceptual cue that helps create the illusory sense of extended space. Using high CRI (color rendering index) light, Sky Factory's SkyTiles™ absorb 6500K light that faithfully reproduces the soft hues and rich saturation of real skies. Coupled with the company’s patented elevators and careful analysis of spatial distribution in every reflective ceiling plan (RCP), the virtual skylight achieves the uncanny effect of projecting an outdoor vista.

Sky Factory artists also leverage the widespread use of hung ceilings to their advantage, creating a high resolution matrix using Sky Factory's unique SkyTiles™. In this fashion, portions of the image will cross the foreground element of the ceiling grid, a cognitive set up that's irresistible to our brain. When our mind picks up the pattern it cannot help but assume (thanks to our ingrained habits of perception) the missing visual input lies behind the grid and thereby perceive an illusory plane beyond the ceiling.

Sky Factory's Open Skies Image Technology™ creates a compelling illusion of a real skylight in any ceiling.

This cognitive principle is called "amodal perception" after the Gestalt Psychologists that discovered it. Such a spatial interpretation where our brains create or assemble a perceptual whole from recognizable segments is a hardwired habit. In the case of Sky Factory's unique virtual skylights, this leap of interpretation enhances the illusory perception of depth and gives rise to biophilic illusions of nature™ that are experienced as real.

This cognitive phenomenon deepens biophilic engagement and allows our deep genetic-based need to affiliate with nature (Biophilia) to emerge, triggering an automatic 'relaxation response' in the physiology. In this sense, leveraging the mind's propensity to recognize patterns and assign meaning to visual and other perceptual cues, Sky Factory is able to create virtual windows and skylights to the pristine outdoors, a harbinger of health and wellness for man since time immemorial.

The power of biophilic illusions to counterbalance less than ideal built environments is a much welcome tool in the field of biophilic design, helping patients, staff and visitors in large deep plan buildings gain some respite from otherwise constraining artificial spaces.

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