Alternate Realities

Technology is intervening in our experience of the world and each other. A project from the Venice Biennale explores this idea as Shaped Touches.

By Sean Lally

The exhibition space shows the materiality of the base design elements. The accompanying video game demonstration shows how various communities and users can add their own layers of design. Photo by Giorgio Lazar.

Shared experiences are important for building community. Bringing people together in the same public place is probably the most common method in landscape architecture for achieving that goal (prior to a global pandemic, of course). Standing in proximity to others as you experience overlapping resources and information (the weather, a market, a movie, or areas for play and sport) creates shared experience within the world. The assumption is that if the challenges to physical access can be eliminated universally, then space can be shared equally. But there are indications that physical access is not the sole issue. Chances are significant that you have a smartphone within reach, but not everyone will have the latest smartphone. And for those of us who have these phones, it’s likely that a spectrum of applications offers weather forecasts, video games, and alert notifications that give you different information from the person standing next to you.

This “spectrum of access” on our phones today might initially sound more analogous to two people reading different newspapers on a park bench, but it is the beginning of something more. The phones we carry reinforce the notion that people are willing and accustomed to carrying technologies that give them additional information about where they are. Applications that once gave directions now tell us intensity of traffic and alternate routes. Earphones that were once tethered to our phone can now increase the quality of our hearing, and cameras that once only took pictures now show us layers of augmented reality designed into a park.

The shapes within our landscapes are a negotiation between the control of our environment and the body’s ability to perceive that information. As our bodies increase their range of sensorial abilities through advancements in health care and access to wearable technologies, climate change is simultaneously redefining our expectations of future environments. Designers (landscape architects, architects, urban designers) are in a position to foreshadow the opportunities and implications these pressures will have on our shared public spaces. Shaped Touches, a simulation game and physical installation displayed at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, offers an option for how designers will define our landscapes’ shape and the relationships of people sharing that space.

Ultraviolet wavelength experienced in the video game. Image courtesy Sean Lally.

With the use of a video game platform, the project illustrates the opportunities implicit in our urban public spaces through the use of both the game and a built prototype. The game installation is on a one-minute cycle, restarting each time for a player to explore the designed space again. As each game begins, that player experiences changes to their existing sensory perception. This could include the ability to access layers of augmented reality or empathize with those whose senses differ from their own, such as those with color blindness or hearing impairment. As these new senses are provided, so are the correlating environments: an art installation made in the near-infrared light spectrum, a collaborative research project between a university astrobiology department and an artist exploring new forms of plant life in augmented reality that communicate with each other in low-frequency sound, or a simulated experience of color blindness within the park. As each game resets, the base landscape takes on added material variables and designed space. The participant continually occupies the same geographic location but is experiencing unique spaces each time. Shared public space has fragmented.

Simply occupying the same geographic space in time does not guarantee a shared experience among people standing next to each other.

Augmented reality offers people the ability to experience space like animal species—in this case, the near-infrared light spectrum, which is only experienced by certain insects. Image courtesy Sean Lally. 

Design in this case is a “shaped touch” between what our bodies can perceive and the information around us. Design’s shape is less of an objective form and more of a spectrum of sensorial shapes layered upon one another for those with varying access. Much like a radio dial, occupying the same space might not mean you’re tuned to the same design…leading to immense creativity as well as the potential for public space to fragment even further. There will always be subjectivity to experience, but it is important to be mindful of actions that inadvertently hinder aspects of community that public space might otherwise offer.

This still capture from the Shaped Touches video game shows the Augmented Reality Community Garden. Image courtesy Sean Lally.

Change is inevitable. But our discipline has unique capabilities to foreshadow opportunities and pitfalls ahead that others might choose not to look for. Therefore, it’s important that technological advancements, whether they be representational or material, not only be portrayed as opportunities and solutions. Designers are rarely the inventors of the materials, tools, or sciences that influence the shapes that space takes. But the landscape architect does stitch together these technological advancements with the sociological, ecological, and spatial organizations that others might not ever connect. I would argue it is only the designer who can truly stitch together such disparate variables to understand the implications ahead, and who is in the position to stress test the future.

Most of the project’s physical shape is composed of local limestone. The metalwork and computer networks are designed to be modified over time to meet the changing needs of the community. Photo by Giorgio Lazar.

Sean Lally is the founder of Sean Lally Architecture and an associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of The Air from Other Planets: A Brief History of Architecture to Come and hosts the podcast Night White Skies.

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