Date of Award

Spring 5-6-2016

Level of Access

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Computer Science


Nicholas Giudice

Second Committee Member

M. Kate Beard-Tisdale

Third Committee Member

Max J. Egenhofer

Additional Committee Members

Shawn W. Ell

Reinhard Moratz


People often become disoriented when navigating in complex, multi-level buildings. To efficiently find destinations located on different floors, navigators must refer to a globally coherent mental representation of the multi-level environment, which is termed a multi-level cognitive map. However, there is a surprising dearth of research into underlying theories of why integrating multi-level spatial knowledge into a multi-level cognitive map is so challenging and error-prone for humans. This overarching problem is the core motivation of this dissertation.

We address this vexing problem in a two-pronged approach combining study of both basic and applied research questions. Of theoretical interest, we investigate questions about how multi-level built environments are learned and structured in memory. The concept of multi-level cognitive maps and a framework of multi-level cognitive map development are provided. We then conducted a set of empirical experiments to evaluate the effects of several environmental factors on users’ development of multi-level cognitive maps. The findings of these studies provide important design guidelines that can be used by architects and help to better understand the research question of why people get lost in buildings. Related to application, we investigate questions about how to design user-friendly visualization interfaces that augment users’ capability to form multi-level cognitive maps. An important finding of this dissertation is that increasing visual access with an X-ray-like visualization interface is effective for overcoming the disadvantage of limited visual access in built environments and assists the development of multi-level cognitive maps. These findings provide important human-computer interaction (HCI) guidelines for visualization techniques to be used in future indoor navigation systems.

In sum, this dissertation adopts an interdisciplinary approach, combining theories from the fields of spatial cognition, information visualization, and HCI, addressing a long-standing and ubiquitous problem faced by anyone who navigates indoors: why do people get lost inside multi-level buildings. Results provide both theoretical and applied levels of knowledge generation and explanation, as well as contribute to the growing field of real-time indoor navigation systems.