ma 21 sep 2020

NFF Interactive Interview: Paula Strunden about WEIGHTLESS BRICKS ACT II: COLLABORATION

Forget Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams. There are other ways – more exciting ways – to collaborate in the future. With WEIGHTLESS BRICKS ACT II: COLLABORATION architects John Cruwys and Paula Strunden explore the possibilities with a virtual garden where two people can work together. We spoke with Paula about their project.

In a nutshell
“WEIGHTLESS BRICKS is a research led design experiment in three acts, by John Cruwys and myself. This second act deals with the idea of collaboration. Not in the sense of sitting in front of a screen or by speaking with a colleague over a distance, but through spatial means. Both John and I are trained as architects, so we were thinking about how to create a shared long distance space. In our installation you share the same interactive, three dimensional environment. It’s a garden for two people to tend to. We called it mixed reality, because you get a VR-headset, but on the floor you’ll feel wood chips and you’ll also get a physical object. For one person it is a rake, for the other a watering can. You have to work together to plant seeds and cultivate the landscape in virtual reality.”

What kind of experience awaits the viewer?
“It’s quite a playful, speculative approach. In reality the two ‘work spaces’ are next to each other, but they could also be miles apart from each other. Once you put on your headset it becomes one virtual space. When you are tending the garden, the sun will rise. You can spend a day in that imaginary garden, where your actions define the narrative. It’s not meant to be a game, there’s no aim. You can collect berries, pull up vegetables, and shake the trees. Stay as long as you like, as long as you are happy to collaborate with your partner.”

What are the interactive elements?
“In the virtual garden you can interact with numerous elements. You can pick berries, drop food, whatever. We work with Leap Motion, meaning you don’t have to hold controllers: your hands are the controllers. This makes the interaction intuitive and creates the strong sense of being in the virtual with a physical body. We don’t show your collaborator; you only see him or her as a couple of floating hands. We experimented a lot with using avatars, but decided against it. It means that you can embody the same position as the other person; you can literally stand in each others shoes. That’s a very weird feeling.”

What is a unique aspect of your work?
“I think the presence of physical objects is not often done in VR: the combination of physical and digital reality. What is also unique is that we invite you to collaborate, but not for gaming or entertainment purposes. WEIGHTLESS BRICKS is quite conceptional and artistic. Possibly because of our background as trained architects, with a focus on a strong spatial approach.”

What are you most proud of?  
“It might sound grim, but we designed this before the COVID-crisis. For a year we were thinking about the potential to connect people in different ways than they were used to. It’s quite particular that our work turned out to be so timely. Before, we had to say to people ‘imagine how you would collaborate in 2035′. There’s no need for that anymore. ‘Proud’ is the wrong word, but it turned out more timely than we expected. What we are proud of, is the other things we have learned. For example the fact that the need for your personal space is almost bigger in virtual reality than in real life. That’s the thing about research-led design: it will lead to things that surprise you, the maker. That makes it so interesting.” For more information about Paula and John’s interdisciplinary research platform, you can go to their website.

Which of your fellow selected interactive projects is first on your to do list?
“That’s very difficult to say, I still didn’t read up on all of them. I will just take my time and experience them all. It looks very eclectic; each looks interesting for different reasons. John and I are very new to this field. As a profession, architecture can take a long time to react to new technology, so we are super excited just to be part of this selection; it’s not a world that we know well. It’s just very unexpected.”

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