Tacit knowledge and VR for Applied Artists

The image shows a few 3D forms created in GravitySketchVR, using the stroke drawing tool and a hand controller to make flowing forms using gestural movements.

Tacit knowledge and VR for Applied Artists: how we apply our ‘personal’ knowledge to working digitally and in virtual reality (VR)

Anarkik3D’s CEO and jeweller, Ann Marie Shillito, was selected to join Applied Arts Scotland’s DISTANCE2 and one of the themes that her small supportive group (ALM) focused on is how our tacit knowledge, as makers, enables us within our different disciplines to effectively make use of VR.

The purpose of Applied Arts Scotland’s DISTANCE Project is understanding the ways in which makers could and would want to use immersive technology in their practice and to engage others with their craft practice.

Tacit knowledge and VR (virtual reality): an image that shows the Distance Project's virtual three dimensional exhibition space and Ann Marie Shillito's corner with floating 3D models and images and text on the walls.
DISTANCE2 Project exhibition in Frame.io: Ann Marie Shillito’s display of 3D models, powerpoint, images and link to gallery about tacit knowledge, VR and Applied Artists.

There were 8 of us makers from different disiplines (knitting to ceramics, glass to wood, weaving to jewellery, etc) with wide experience within a range of sectors (film making, video and performance, visual arts, fashion, 3D printing, education, software develpment). The sheer variety of approaches is amazing and inspiring. First place to grasp all this is the DISTANCE2 Project online exhibition in FrameVR (opens in a new tab). When in the exhibition space and navigating around the objects, images and videos, links to individuals’ galleries and group galleries will pop up. In these you will find information and see the results of this inspired project.

Ann Marie was in the ALM group and our disciplines are diverse – knitting and crocheting (a transformative discipline), 3D printed jewellery (an additive discipline) and stone carving (a subtractive discipline). Through discussions over the months we starting to asked ourselves: what is tacit knowledge, why it is important, how do we gain it and how do we use it in our practice?

Early discussions helped us reflect on how tacit knowledge as our personal knowledge and embedded within our ‘expertise’, informs our thinking and doing and unknowingly helps in our decision making processes. Ann Marie wanted to delve into how we use tacit knowledge when we are working digitally and virtually with the design programme we used in VR: GravitySketchVR.

Tacit knowledge and VR (virtual reality): an image that shows the ALM group's virtual three dimensional exhibition space with floating 3D models, and images and text on the walls.
Tacit knowledge and VR for Applied Artists: ALM group’s online exhibition space on Frame.io about tacit knowledge and designing in GravitySketchVR.

The concept of tacit knowledge was introduced by Michael Polanyi in 1958 with an assertion that “We can know more than we can tell”.

What is tacit/personal knowledge?

Tacit/personal knowledge can be defined as the intangible know-how that people build up by doing which they hold, not only in their mind, but also in their muscles as ‘muscle memory’, which is intrinsic to proprioception. Proprioception, also referred to as kinaesthesia, is the sense of self-movement and body position. It is sometimes described as the “sixth sense”. It is mediated by proprioceptors, mechanosensory neurons located within muscles, tendons, and joints and relates to learning through muscle movement.

Embedded knowledge is also gained through touching and feeling and experiencing phenomenon such as hardness/softness, mass/weight, temperature, all felt and sensed through nerve endings.

Tacit knowledge and VR (virtual reality): an image that shows the ALM group's virtual three dimensional exhibition space with floating 3D models  and images and text on the walls.
Tacit knowledge and VR for Applied Artists: ALM group’s exhibition space about our tacit knowledge and bringing it into GravitySketch in virtual reality.

Tacit knowledge is different from explicit knowledge. While explicit knowledge can be easily shared, stored or articulated, tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is so embedded in ‘know-how’ we don’t know we have it!

Why is tacit knowledge important? A high percentage of our personal knowledge is embedded and synthesized in tacit form. Our expertise and existance constantly relies on it. (For further information see Ray, Tim [2009]: ‘Rethinking Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowledge: From personal knowing to imagined institutions.’ Minerva, 47[1] pp. 75–92. For a brief read see Section 8, page 9 of the Ray’s article.)

The image shows applied Artist Ann Marie Shillito at her jewellery work bench where she continues to develop her expertise and know-how, where she gains the tacit knowledge that she uses in VR for designing.

Applied artist Ann Marie Shillito at her jewellery work bench: she continues her practice, developing and learning new skills, techniques and technologies to expand her expertise and know-how. The tacit / personal knowledge she gains she uses in designing digitally and virtually.

How do we gain tacit knowledge? We have to gain it ourselves by doing it ourselves. There is also the well-used system of ‘Sitting next to Nellie’ to transfer and reinforce knowledge, as this is about the trainee attentively observing the master making, becoming aware of the nuances that she herself is unaware of – those ‘tricks of her trade’ embedded in her practice, her skills and expertise. It is difficult for her to articulate what she is doing while she is doing it as these are distinct mindsets making it hard to reflect on and verbalise how she is using her knowledge in order to pass this on.

How do we use tacit knowledge in our practice? As tacit knowledge is the unseen part of our ‘expertise’, do we infer it as ‘instinct’ or the ‘intuitive’ gut feeling we apply to decision making by informing our thinking and doing? Where does it fit with our notion of ‘talent’, or ability and skill as it has the potency and capacity to enhance and increase the quality of our work? When we make things in our real world we both add to our know-how and use our explicit knowledge overtly and our tacit knowledge instinctively and innately because we understand what our materials, tools and processes can and can’t do. Importantly, this underlying knowledge and know-how can keep the decision making process flowing by reducing any disruptions caused by a touch of caution or even lack of confidence.

Makers have oodles of ‘know-how’!

Does this know-how, our tacit knowledge, bring any advantages when working in virtual reality?

Can we transfer this personal ‘know-how’ into the abstractness of a virtual environment? Can we tap into it where we can’t touch and feel what we are creating and manipulating digitally?

Ann Marie Shillito’s contribution to our ALM group project is her reflection on how when working in VR we use our tacit knowledge to ‘inform our decision making’ during the design process.

Ann Marie has been 3D designing digitally, using Anarkik3DDesign, for over ten years. She knows that working virtually has many advantages and benefits as the digital data created is very flexible and offers opportunities for iterative development and prototyping, for ‘what if’ scenarios, manipulating, sharing, collaborating, manufacturing using 3D printing, and so on. This alone is motivation to move to creating digitally. If our tacit knowledge and ‘know-how’ also provide further advantages to create more effectively in a virtual environment, this is an extra incentive for investing in working digitally.

To quote Malcolm McCullough: ‘it is vital to have knowledge of making in the real world in order to be able to design creatively and effectively with CAD software.’ (Malcolm McCullough, 2004).

An image showing the cover of Ann Marie Shillito's book ‘Digital Technology: Industrial Technologies for Applied Artists and Designer Makers’  and 3D printed rings and earrings dyed in bright colours.

Ann Marie devoted a section in her book ‘Digital Technology: Industrial Technologies for Applied Artists and Designer Makers’ to ‘Craft as knowledge’ (page 18) and this advantage we have as makers.

A methodology to investigate.

The DISTANCE Project was an opportunity to revisit her interest in tacit knowledge and working digitally and to try a specific methodology to shed a bit of light on this connection. From previous work as a research fellow at Edinburgh College of Art investigating tacit knowledge, the method of capturing the creative process on video enables more intensive reflection on what is going on when a task is being undertaken. It is logical to have the video taken from a viewpoint that is as close as possible to what the maker sees when they are designing or making.

Ann Marie applied this technique when she used GravitySketchVR to create forms to be 3D printed and finished as brooches. The viewpoint video recording in GravitySketchVR is from her position where she is seeing what she is doing.

An image that shows the 3 dimensional linear forn created using sweeping gestures of the hand controllers in GravitySketchVR.
Methodology re tacit knowledge and VR for applied artists: this is Ann Marie’s viewpoint when she is designing using a hand controller to create fluid lines in GravitySketchVR.

To create the model above, she used the ‘stroke’ tool from a menu board (see below) selecting features and using the diagonal slider bar to scale and shape the profile of the ‘drawing’ tool.

Tacit knowledge and VR (virtual reality): an image that shows the profile for the 3 dimensional linear forn to be created using sweeping gestures of the hand controllers in GravitySketchVR.

Ann Marie chose an oval profile for the ‘drawing’ tool and resized it to the proportions she reckoned would give her both the linear effect she wanted and be strong enough for 3D printing and wearing as a brooch. Tacit knowledge used to decide this?

The video captured all this plus the action of drawing in 3D. The next stage was watching the video, going through it again and again, then voice recording as correctly as possible what she thought she was doing and why, and what she thought she was considering doing. A final stage was reflecting on these comments to drill down into what knowledge was used to make those little decisions that inform the ongoing design process.

An example of this is the ‘decisions’ behind selecting the proportions of the ‘drawing’ tool, proportions that Ann Marie felt were right for what she was designing to be made – a 3D printed brooch. The knowledge required is both explicit and tacit: explicit regarding the recommended minimum thickness for 3D printing in polyamide. But what about knowing what the minimum thickness should be for a particular size brooch? What does ‘felt right’ mean in this context? How are decisions made regarding achieving the balance between practical issues and aesthetics?

Why use this method to investigate tacit knowledge and VR for applied artists?

Polyani states that there is a type of knowledge that is not captured by language or mathematics. We can see it only by its action, and in Polanyi’s model, personal knowing is the capacity to do something that has been learned in the course of experience. As commenting on what you are doing, and doing at the same time, are cognitively different, the video recording helps in separating these two different states of mind. Hence videoing the action and using it to observe and reflect on what is going on.

The process of scrutinising videos was a laborious undertaking, watching the video a few times, then talking into her mobile as she watch the video again. Voice was transposed into text, the text then edited to make sense which was also extra reflection to catch any more ‘thoughts’ that occured while designing. So Ann Marie decided to concentrated on selected sections where she considered her knowledge, both explicit and tacit, were influencing decision making.

(Below the Conclusion is a shortened transcript of the comments made when watching the video of the design process of the second set of designs using GravitySketchVR.)


Although this exercise has generated more questions than any answers to the original questions, it set off a cycle of iterative thinking around tacit knowledge, about states such as ‘flow’.

A diagram that shows different states of being along the vertical 'challenge level' and the horizontal 'skill level', such as boredom, worry, arousal, with flow in the optimum position for both challenge and skill.

Flow is the state of being when concentration is acutely focused on working through challenges and solving issues using our expertise and skills.

Ann Marie regards tacit knowledge to be intrinsic to this state of ‘flow’. For her flow happens when she is in an agreeable place for tapping into her tacit knowledge and know-how, and in the state that Sennett describes as grounding: the ‘constant interplay between tacit knowledge and self-conscious awareness, the tacit knowledge serving as an anchor, the explicit awareness serving as critique and corrective’. (Sennett. The Craftsman. Pg 50).

Her reasoning is that tacit knowledge as the accumulation of know-how gained from our personal grasp of what our materials, tools and processes can and can’t do, enables us to just get on with the task. This is because this knowledge facilitates and gives insightfulness and depth to formulating ideas, designing and making because, underneath, decision making is happening smoothly, reducing disruptions caused by prevarication. She is very aware of how easily flow is destroyed by even the slightest disruptions. If, therefore, our know-how facilitates both flow and the smooth decision-making process that leads to flow, we have the key to a virtuous cycle of genuine and deep engagement in our praxis.

Tacit Knowledge: a big concern

This also prompted greater awareness of the delicate nature of knowledge, its loss and how ‘personal knowledge’ as something not visible can lose its place and space in systems of learning. By not grasping the importance and value of personal know-how as hands-on doing and ‘sitting next to Nellie’ as ways of gaining personal skills and expertise enriched with tacit knowledge, promotion for this way of learning, as embodied by vocational courses and apprenticeships, has diminished. Learning by doing is demoted into near oblivion.

Ann Marie believes this also happening in art colleges where the emphasis is heavily on academic achievements to the detriment of hand skills. As she is not in academia anymore and as this is not a Research Project, consider this as a concern of hers.

Tacit Knowledge and designing in VR!

A straightforward definition of virtual reality (VR) is the use of computer modelling and simulation that enables a person to interact with an artificial three-dimensional visual or other sensory environment.  Virtual Reality is about immersion, towards total engagement within a human-made environment but other than visual and audio, lacking sensory input and output of haptics (touch and feel) which is important for engagement.

As an applied artist and designer maker, Ann Marie knows that she can circumvent this limitation as she can think three dimensionally and work with the abstract nature of a 2D sketch or rough 3D concept model: she uses her own individual symbolic ‘language’ of lines and form as an aid to capture thoughts and provide intimations and clues about making something real. She can work this way because she intuitively and innately understand the constraints and affordances of real world materials, tools and processes by which her sketch designs will eventually be realised.

Likewise when working digitally in a virtual environment she bring this know-how into an amazing risk-free playground to exploit the benefits of working digitally to expand concepts and ideas into new and unfamiliar realms. This also includes creating things that can only exist as virtual objects in this unreal world and created using 3D design and modelling programmes. These span the top of the range to barely useful, either ‘affordable, easy to learn and use but not sufficiently sophisticated to simulate real world materials, their properties, or the processes she uses in making’, or ‘do all this but are expensive with a very steep learning curves’. The former pertains to the 3D modelling programme, GravitySketchVR, and by using her know-how Ann Marie could, to an extent, compensate for the inadequacy of GS-VR’s digital tools and immerse herself sufficiently to apply her real-world knowledge to create a series of forms to be 3D printed and made into brooches.

As a designer maker she wants her forms to be capable of existing in our real world, and made by 3D printing. Watching the video for the umteenth time, and looking at her awkwardness and hesitancy creating all the forms following the first one which stands out for being so easily and smoothly drawn, Ann Marie pondered what was going on. Her thoughts centre on the possibility that, while drawing, her explicit knowledge as practical information, regarding 3D printing’s parameters and constraints, were probably key factors impinging on and blocking access to personal know-how. In other works, was she too focused on the practical and not going with the flow?

This final thought brings to mind Sennett’s quote again, about ‘the ‘constant interplay between tacit knowledge and self-conscious awareness, the tacit knowledge serving as an anchor, the explicit awareness serving as critique and corrective’!

Ann Marie hopes that she has made a convincing case regarding our super abilities as applied artists to bring our know-how into VR and exploit this unreal, illusory, weird, incredible, mind-blowingly fantastic and unnatural medium, for all its worth! And have fun doing it.


Example of transcript

Below is a shortened version of the transcribed notes that Ann Marie made when she watched the video of her design process, creating the second set of designs she made using GravitySketchVR. (You can access the the full transcription with images here on Slideshare.) And the video here.

Tacit knowledge and VR (virtual reality): an image that shows the  menu pallet for creating the profile of the 3 dimensional stroke tool to be used with sweeping gestures when using hand controllers in GravitySketchVR to form a linear design.

00:00 – 00:06: GravitySketchVR. Open menu pallet for determining the profile of the ‘stroke tool’, and its orientation for the 3D linear form which will be created using hand movements with the right controller.

Tacit knowledge and VR (virtual reality): an image that shows the profile for the 3 dimensional linear form to be created using sweeping gestures of the hand controllers in GravitySketchVR.

00:06 – 00:12: move the marker up a bit & left then move the hand controller into the work space to see size & thickness of profile selected. As I consider this a bit on the thin side for 3D printing safely, I move the marker further to the right to thicken it & then a move into the work space to see the profile & size.

The proportion feels about right but will only know once I start designing. This is because the ratio of the profile to the size of whole piece needs to be right for 3D printing, strong enough to be worn as a brooch, and most important, to have the aesthetic that I want and will try to achieve. This is about having thickness for printing and strength and thinness for the calligraphic quality I want.

It is here with this judgement that I think tacit knowledge is informing the selection of the profile. I am not using any method of measurement: it is all ‘by eye’. Is this what we mean when we operate intuitively? Am I pulling up ‘know-how’ from my experience with 3D printing and handling objects in the polyimide material that this piece will be printed in?

I will only know for sure that I have the right proportions for 3D printing when I upload my models to the 3D print service company’s website so this next stage to design the form is going to be interesting! Has my hands-on experience over the years designing and making 3D printed jewellery generated the level of tacit knowledge to give me confidence regarding decisions I will ‘spontaneously’ make about the size of the ‘brooch’?

00:12- 00:23: Now the fun starts as this is the part I really love, free, sweeping movements that can swirl and twist! In the video, I see the initial tentative movements I make with the right hand controller to orientate the ‘stroke tool’, the three dimensional elongated oval form that is the section through my line. I am waving the controller about, like loosening up my hand, wrist and arm movements in preparation for ‘drawing the line’, angling the oval drawing tool so that it has depth for strength but looks delicate from the front.

Interesting to observe these eleven seconds again and while I watch this in the video my thinking is about ‘muscle memory’, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of movements, and which is the ability to reproduce the movement without conscious thought. Intuitively?  I am also thinking about proprioception and learning through a physical activity. I am tuning in to something because I remember that in these seconds I was visualising in my mind the sweeping free movements I had done before in GravitySketchVR and liked so much. Were my movements a preparation to committing myself to ‘making a mark’?

00:24: – 00:57: And then I take off and in one go, in 6 seconds, produce a design that I am fairly happy with! It’s seemed that the prep was helpful.

3 images that show the process of creating a 3 dimensional form using sweeping gestures when using hand controllers in GravitySketchVR

If any piece is to work as a brooch no parts should stick out too much and be vulnerable. I rotate the piece and look at it from the side and the back. It is crucial for the strength of a piece 3D printed in polyamide that the proportions of the piece is reasonable as the nylon type material is quite tough but a bit brittle.

To me the proportions of the piece looks okay. I move it aside to create more models, most of which are quickly deleted, described as awful, ugly and undynamic, horrible, feeble. I am going backwards!

Why, why, why can’t I improve on the very first model? Is it something to do with trying too hard? Isn’t this iterative approach one of the benefits of working digitally, using save, change, undo, redo, delete? I move into a more thoughtful mode, moving more slowly, and with more consideration, pausing to look at the forms and their juxta positioning, moving and tweaking, deleting lines with no ‘feel’ to them (what’s that mean) and then working with 2 lines that I like, adding a ‘scribble’, move it around, move it off, do another. And so on ….. (the full commentry is on Slideshare, link given above)

 I notice I am moving the controller more than I have before in what looks like a very considered way, visualising I presume, like a diver does, thinking through their complex set of twists and turns before completing their dive!

Finally I have a second form that I like and save both models in an .obj file format.

Reflecting on all this and what is happening, I acknowledge the explicit knowledge I have regarding 3D print service company’s requirements such as minimum thickness, no thinly tapering edges, the right ratios to ensure models are robust enough to survive post processing and handling! Where is the tacit knowledge? Does this reside in my hand movements as I adapt more and more to using and controlling the controllers, in the small decisions taken when forming the shape? Those decisions are affecting the kind of form I make, how I manipulate a form, the aesthetics, my reasons for deleting.

It is only in contemplating my actions as I re-watch these in the video that I start questioning what is happening and my tentative responses about tacit knowledge and VR just throw up more queries. What I am positive about is that what I see happening in the video fits with what Sennett describes as grounding – the ‘constant interplay between tacit knowledge and self-conscious awareness, the tacit knowledge serving as an anchor, the explicit awareness serving as critique and corrective’.