Last autumn, Frame and Orgatec challenged today’s leading designers to devise a workplace that was truly agile – one in which workers would have unprecedented control over how their environment looks, feels and functions. The teams shortlisted during our Frame Awards festival in February have now been invited to take part in a series of #FrameLive virtual workshops where they can road test their concepts against a panel of industry experts. Our first event featured finalists Soft Bodies, a collective based between London and Amsterdam. Their selected panel of experts consisted of Jan Bunge, partner at creative digital studio Squint/Opera, Taylor Enoch, researcher in neuroaesthetics at University College London and Julian Ellerby, an independent strategy director who’s led teams at agencies such as FranklinTill and Anyways Creative.

Paula Strunden, one half of the Soft Bodies team, opened the conversation by expanding on their interest in the relationship between physical objects and virtual spaces. ‘This is a reoccurring theme for us, to really think about what material properties can mean within the digital environment.’  Soft Bodies’ Orgatec challenge entry builds on the group’s ongoing research into mixed-reality interfaces. Having developed a series of installations that explore how physical objects can act as gateways between real and digital worlds, Soft Bodies proposed applying their learnings to the future of the office space. ‘We are interested in exploring this very tight interaction between the nature of the objects we might play with,’ Strunden explained, ‘and then what kind of spaces they then present to us.’

Their proposal would allow users to virtually map a variety of alternate work environments across preexisting offices. The concept offered the potential for employees to layer different experiences across one shared location, whilst also providing a more meaningful connection to and presence for remote workers. Strunden suggested that our current state of isolation, and the fatigue of trying to connect with others via screen, makes it even more urgent that we develop better means of ‘sharing space over distance’.

Header and below: Networked mixed-reality experience Weightless Bricks Act II: Collaboration by Soft Bodies, exhibited as part of Worlding Worlds at MU Artspace Eindhoven, opening on 1 June 2020. Photos: Hanneke Wetzer

It’s an area of investigation that Squint/Opera’s Bunge has been pursuing for several years in the guise of Space Form, a platform that helps staff and clients – most often architects and engineers – collaborate remotely. With Space Form, Bunge set out to recreate the idea of the ‘project room’ in a virtual setting. ‘The idea of the “project room” still exists in some offices,’ he said, ‘a dedicated space where you do all your meetings, you have your models, you have your sketches – you go into the space and are actually in a sense working within the project.’ Bunge was keen to highlight the way the platform enabled collaborators to make use of the emotionality in how we experience space and material. ‘Such digital platforms will help us better understand how our bodies act as sensors and how we can use that to test physical spatial conditions before we start building.’

Digital platforms will help us better understand how our bodies act as sensors 

Enoch’s introduction to neuroaesthetics built on this, providing clues as to the important neurological role beauty can play in centring a subject, one that might be particularly relevant to how users experience the dislocation of virtual space. ‘We view beauty as the brain’s way of acknowledging that it has in some way stabilized an otherwise unstable external world. That process of stabilization is one of the brain’s key functions, and helps us both understand the world and also better act within it.’

This theme linked neatly back to Soft Bodies’ interest in developing tools that might bridge between the physical and digital workplace, enabling workers to feel in greater control of their environment. Bunge described how his team had developed a pen tool that helped ‘ground’ the experience of Space Form because it acted a reassuring and familiar waypoint. Enoch expanded on this by explaining how there were two different object typologies – biological and artefactual – which impact how we attach new uses to them. From a neurological standpoint, the former are far more resistant to ‘overriding’ because we understand them on a more innate level. ‘There are different grades of learning that will dictate how convincing our interactions might be, and these grades depend upon our familiarity with the object type.’ He pointed out that a rake Soft Bodies had developed for a previous project could work well in this regard, as it’s an artefactual object that isn’t used by most on a consistent basis, making it easier for users to associate it with a variety of possible interactions. Plant-based forms, on the other hand, might resist reprogramming.

It is important to think about how we can create a sense of ownership and accountability for the tools we give people

Ellerby was interested in discussing how these new mechanisms could grant employees more agency in the workplace, and thus lead to a greater sense of empowerment. ‘It is important to think about how we can create a sense of ownership and accountability for the tools we give people, perhaps by allowing them the ability to choose or customize those objects.’ Recalling from his experience in shaping workplace culture for major brands, Ellerby outlined how employers were finally accepting the need to help foster emotional and psychological wellbeing amongst their workforce. The potential of Soft Bodies’ project to help staff personalize how they experience the workplace was therefore something he saw as particularly timely.

‘We're on the cusp of some quite rigorous guidelines in terms of office health and hygiene and the protocols of how we can use spaces to come together,’ Ellerby noted. ‘I think the question is how those kind of restrictions can be embraced, while simultaneously creating workspaces that make the most of the emotional and physical connections which we need to thrive.’

#FrameLive is a new initiative aimed at tackling important design topics and issues with industry leaders. Read more here.