'The challenge posed by emerging tech is to make sure you’re not seduced by its novelty'

Sheffield – It’s a quirk of the digital age that as daily life disappears deeper into our screens, our attachment to physical experiences only grows stronger. Rather than dissolving into the ether, it seems that humans are delving even further into the tangible and the tactile. Far from being a Luddite rejection of technological progress, however, many new physical experiences are augmented by seamless digital technology. Spaces become responsive, and the digital becomes embodied. We no longer need a screen to connect with the virtual world: we can just reach out and touch it.

‘Screens can often feel like barriers to interaction,’ said Matt Pyke, founder and director of Universal Everything, an art and design collective with a reputation born of its boundary-busting digital installations. ‘Watching people using their phones in public spaces can be incredibly alienating, but we believe that digital can and should be profoundly connecting.’

For Pyke, the constellation of hardware currently used to access digital information and culture – screen, mouse, keyboard – is just one design solution rather than an inevitable interface. The screen has served its purpose. It can no longer facilitate the seamless experiences that we have come to expect.

He wants to reframe our digital experiences: ‘I definitely think there’s already a blurring between the physical and digital. We’re moving away from everybody staring at these tiny rectangles in their hands to people actually stepping into the screen, where the content surrounds them. And what’s even more interesting is that this type of media can be aware of you, of your movements or your voice. Spaces can come alive and react to your presence.’

The enquiry into the nature of human presence in the digital world was well demonstrated in the aptly named Presence, an art installation that saw Universal Everything collaborate with choreographer Benjamin Millepied and the LA Dance Project. It debuted in 2013 at London’s Science Museum.

Visitors entered a darkened room encircled by a continuous digital screen on which projections of humanoid figures cavorted. Instead of filming the dancers with conventional equipment, Pyke and his team used motion-capture to record them in multiple dimensions before translating their movements into digital abstractions. ‘The aim was to translate the figures into something painterly, so you could still feel the human presence but couldn’t read it directly.’ He spoke of tension between the abstract and the figurative that still allowed viewers to ‘perceive the soul of the dancer within the digital form’.

The challenge posed by any form of emerging tech is to make sure you’re not seduced by the novelty of it

Unsurprisingly, such powerful experiences have proved a hit with brands seeking new ways to connect with consumers. A similar approach to the one used for Presence appeared again in Flyknit (2013), an installation made for Nike. This time, infrared sensors translated nearby human motion in real time, generating a digital doppelgänger that mirrored the visitor’s every move. Other brand solutions include a set design for MCM x Christopher Raeburn’s S/S 2017 runway, where models encased in an amphitheatre of fine gauze marched amid projections of extreme weather patterns: tornados morphed into typhoons in front of the audience’s eyes.

‘Whether we’re working on a self-initiated project or a brand commission, the process is always the same,’ said Pyke. ‘It has to start and end with the human experience. We use technology only to amplify that experience – to make it even more powerful. The challenge posed by any form of emerging tech is to make sure you’re not seduced by the novelty of it; otherwise, you’re at risk of just creating a product demo. For me, technology is at its most successful when you forget it’s there – no-one wants to see tech showing off.’

When proposing immersive and responsive spatial designs – and suggesting that they represent the future of digital interaction – it’s vital to mention the amount of money it takes to execute them properly. Berlin-based producer and curator Joana Seguro knows this more than most, having commissioned pieces from the likes of Ryoji Ikeda and Carsten Nicolai for The Vinyl Factory in London, worked with institutions such as the Barbican and the V&A, and collaborated with an array of brands, from BMW to Google. Clients, she said, are beginning to refrain from ‘meddling too much with the integrity of a piece.’

Seguro prefers self-initiated work, which ‘tends to be more successful than work that responds to a brief’. A requirement for future success is ‘making sure there are independent cultural spaces for this type of work, as well as brand commissions’. She’s unequivocal about giving the spatial experience a leading position in the future of digital creativity. ‘We’re just too desensitized to the screen. We use it for multitasking and snacking on information. It’s quite a shallow engagement, and it’s not good for creating those moments of deeper focus and connection.’

‘I believe in the power of physical experience to stimulate the senses,’ said the CMO of Hyundai Motor Company, Wonhong Cho, who’s called on Universal Everything for major projects such as Running Man (2015). ‘The harmonious use of the digital and physical experience helps people to embrace our brand with all their senses. In today’s rapidly changing media environment, brands must be ready to provide experiences that suit their customers’ lifestyles, and this means creating and leading new cultural movements. Expectations are higher than ever before and getting higher every day. Brands must be far more active.’

After the tumultuous year that was 2016, many social commentators speculated that digital technology (especially social media) is increasing estrangement rather than driving connection. We seem to exist in a digital filter bubble, cosseted in an echo chamber of opinion and outrage, that insulates us from our surroundings. Although digital technology has opened up a new universe of information and access, the next challenge, it seems, is to stay connected with, rather than to become alienated from, each other and the physical world around us.

Universal Everything envisions a bold future for spatial design, but as sensory technology improves, new experiences are only going to become more profound. ‘Much of our sensory tech today relies on line of sight, but we exist in a sea of invisible waves that can pass through solid objects and be used as new interfaces,’ said Fadel Adib, assistant professor at MIT, where he leads the Signal Kinetics research group.

‘In the future, our built environments will be able to use these waves to constantly monitor not just our movements but our health and emotional state too. Our built environment will be able to redesign itself constantly to fit our changing needs.’

No clear future awaits spatial design. It’s a tabula rasa, and there lies the appeal for Universal Everything. Pyke sees ‘so many interactions taking place – between digital and physical, designer and audience, technology and architecture – that it’s impossible to control the outcome. You can set a few basic rules, but when the process takes hold, it just grows from there. It’s a bit like training a wild animal.’

universaleverything.com

This piece was originally featured on Frame 116. You can purchase a copy here.

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The May/June issue of Frame is a special one, as we celebrate our 20th anniversary. We present 20 designers and brands – from household names to emerging talents – that we expect to lead the way in spatial design in years to come. We showcase 20 interior projects that represent 20 strategies for designing spaces, and go beyond the conventional scope of design to find 20 visions that frame the future.

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