Screen-based technology is often blamed for segregating users, both from each other and their environment. But can stepping beyond – or into – the screen actually bring us closer together? A Frame Awards 2020 panel discussion with Atelier Brückner founder Uwe Brückner, teamLab communications director Takashi Kudo, Random Studio director Daan Lucas and Christof Babinsky, ASB GlassFloor managing director, explored how, by deploying interactive media at an architectural scale, artists and designers are creating new mechanisms for communal experience.

The root of the conversation was in deliberating how the digital realm can be harnessed in built spaces to encourage increased connection between people. ‘I deeply believe in hybrid systems because I think that we are already influenced very much by the digital abilities of our techniques,’ said Brückner. ‘But still,’ he reflected – referencing a previous talk by MoMA’s Ramona Bronkar Bannayan – ‘the principle of bringing people together is the physical appearance and the physical space.’

Digital potentials can change the relationship between humans

TeamLab has long been playing on the power of the phygital to unite: the 650-strong team develops spatialized digital art that invites people in to become part of the work. ‘The relationship between art and a human is one-on-one – how I feel is important.’ He explained, for example, that you can be impacted by the Mona Lisa, but you can’t touch or interact with the piece. Being immersed in an actual interactive space with other people, however, can totally shift that experience: ‘We believe that digital potentials can change the relationship between humans.’

In the very near future we won't have a borderline between real reality and virtual reality anymore

There a variety of ways to help users achieve a sense of being in the phygital realm. ‘A digital space doesn't always need to be engaging,’ Babinsky pointed out. ‘It can simply provide a sort of little shrine away from the experience and the hecticness around you.’ An example? ASB GlassFloor’s Frame Awards 2019 installation, DeepLumen Cube: ‘[Visitors] actually went from a busy environment where people were interacting with each other, socializing, exchanging great ideas, working on concepts and educating themselves, into this digital space where they did the exact opposite – they isolated themselves you would "in" a phone.’ Brückner added, ‘I think that in the very near future we won't have a borderline between real reality and virtual reality anymore.’

‘What screens and architecture should allow us to do is to change [a] space with the click of a button, in order to introduce different topics on a daily basis,’ continued Babinksy. He reflected on the projects presented by himself, Lucas, Bruckner and Kudo: ‘In every single one, we've seen some sort of technology being used: we saw retail environments, artistic installations – actual art being performed and then digitalized – but what combines all of these things is first of all, technology and second of all, the emotions that come out of it.’

We need to use technology to celebrate humanity – to tap into what makes us human

It’s no coincidence that striving to provoke this emotion is a commonality in the creatives’ practices. ‘We use digital media not for its own sake,’ explained Brückner, ‘but always to achieve a higher level of insight, experience or education. Very often now, our visitors do not even recognize that it is digital media, because they take it as something natural. We use it to open up windows to secret worlds – the virtual in the real isn’t as interesting as the real individual.’ Digital media, through this lens, is an ‘instrument’ to evolve the role people play in built environments. ‘The public and/or recipients need to play a role in our settings, otherwise it's just an autocratic system.’ Daan Lucas’ and his team at Random Studio share similar opinions – they think that technology should be used to create stories. ‘[These stories] make us more aware of the space that we’re in. The goal should be [to figure out] how to make spaces remarkable, how to use technology to invite one another – to see each other and relate to each other again. There are so many different ways you can do that…it needs to be about humanity. We need to use technology to celebrate humanity – to tap into what makes us human. When we do that, we can connect.’

When we talk about spatial design, the user should have an experience, but not an interface

The promises of phygital space are plenty. With its huge potential to humanize and spur connection also comes the need to consider data collection, privacy and accessibility. ‘One of the main challenges we will have in the future on how to create spaces that do not need interfaces,’ said Babinsky, ‘and how to identify what the user really should be able to interface with. When we talk about spatial design, the user should have an experience, but not an interface.’

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