The new digital state of mind has affected almost every industry as we know it, from music to health. Meanwhile, architecture remains unaltered, trapped in its physical container. In our opinion Virtual Reality has come to stay, and it will transform the way we relate to spaces forever.
Our reality is a construction with multiple forms of expression - each culture, economy and geography produces its own model. Multimedia society has created a hybrid and complex reality where material formations are complemented by fictional ones like movies, videogames, advertising, avatars… Special effects are now part of our lives, and VR is one of them. It's not an independent and isolated dimension of actual reality, but part of it. In order to operate in this amplified scene, it is urgent to deploy new architectural skills. Platforms like Oculus Rift, Gear VR, Google Cardboard, HTC Vive, and Hololens combined with softwares like Unity or Unreal open a whole new design field.
In the Post-Internet era, we inhabit physical and virtual spaces simultaneously, from our home to our screens. Actually, it is not an exaggeration to affirm we pay much more attention to digital experiences than physical environments. But the truth is, few of those digital spaces have been conceived as spaces and developed to their full experiential potential. When we think about the way some of our physical spaces, like a library, have been translated to the digital world - ibooks for example - a sense of despair invades us. Too many qualities are missing in the leap. It is clear for us now that digital interfaces need to be enriched by an architectural perspective through a new understanding of scale, proportion, light, materials and community orchestration. VR technologies can bring internet browsing beyond flat screens.
A user interface where you can navigate in 3D can enrich the communication between humans, products, companies and information. A new world of opportunities is open: Interactive menus with spatial configurations, 3D webs with unexplored topological organizations adapted to the full scale and motion of our body and to the cognitive potential of our brain, and above all, a more seductive, sensorial and emotional user experience.
One of the major lessons the digital world has taught is the idea that we don’t need to own things anymore. For economic reasons, ecology or simply convenience, access trumps property. Could virtual experiences bring us the joy of a cutting edge event without leaving the comfort of our homes? Could we transform our daily spaces into places of exuberant relaxation? At Mi5 Architects, we have been fighting the limits of convention for more than 10 years, and this is why we understand VR as the ultimate tool to explore the experiential possibilities of space in a new way. VR architecture is a tool that allows us to push our understanding of real architecture to the extreme and imagine what’s possible, independently of the constraints and limitations of real spaces. Due to the challenges of our practice, the undeniable natural resources crisis and the rebirth of VR we believe it is time to unlearn what we have been taught and create the new spaces of our time.
We see in VR the opportunity as architects to serve an extended community. With real architecture we have been able to create a shelter for a certain amount of people; with virtual architecture we aim to design environments for the digital organization of individuals that is almost infinite. We are in the process of understanding the kind of spaces this community is interested in inhabiting and the purpose those spaces can offer, from relaxation or disconnection to learning or pure entertainment.
A new politics of domesticity is waiting. Downloadable spaces with digital architecture can compound a set of personal retreats, new agoras of debate or extraordinary user-generated scenarios where you can hang out with your peers. In this case, platforms like Convrge or Second Life are a provocation for a serious architectural implication. It's urgent to provide some human qualities to this thing that VR gurus call presence.
These and many others are the questions we are exploring in Mi5VR in the context of private commissions (museums, retail, advertising, real estate…) and our think tank at the Architectural Association in London. With our Unit at the AA we’re imagining new forms of tourism: journeys without displacement, hedonistic landscapes translated into fluid virtual fields, new destinations to inaccessible ecosystems…
As an architectural office, we understand the value that VR tools can bring in terms of freedom as a natural extension to traditional physical spaces. Both formats, Virtual and Real, work with the sensorial experience in order to amplify people’s daily life.
In this journey we aim to redefine the rules that traditional architecture imposes and think about virtual spaces as something other than mere replicas. What does it mean to free ourselves from gravity? What are the possibilities of iterative spaces influenced by usage data? What are the opportunities of gamification (interaction, teleportation and hyper-information) in order to design a space? Virtual Reality opens completely new forms of architecture where the perception of things and the way we approach them are transformed.
Nowadays our office of Virtual and Real architecture is a unique mix of curious architects, unconventional UX designers, confused videogame developers and brand strategists. We keep ourselves busy creating the new spatial experience a museum should embrace to show its archived pieces, influencing the traditional customer journey of a hotel chain, VR as a sales tool for a luxury real estate or a project in between a space, a movie and a brand experience for a pharma company. With all of them, we are not only discovering new architectural formats for the digital world but also new ways to understand physical space.
If the evolution of digital experiences is moving from a 2D screen to 3D environments that put the individual in the center, we can’t deny architects have an expertise in that. The digital world needs architects just as much as architects need the digital world.
Architecture at its full potential.
Nacho Martín is cofounder and director of Mi5VR, a Madrid- and London-based practice working in both virtual and real architecture, and a Unit Master at the Architectural Association in London.