︎ Paula Strunden


Paula Strunden trained as an architect, and now designs immersive virtual and mixed reality experiences. She looks ahead to ask what the office and home of the future might look like, and how the objects we interact with might behave.

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Paula Strunden trained as an architect, and now designs immersive virtual and mixed reality experiences. She looks ahead to ask what the office and home of the future might look like, and how the objects we interact with might behave. I sat down with her to discuss her work during the quarantine, the changing agency of objects in design, and the importance of making new softwares accessible to young students.

Maybe we can start by talking about the quarantine? I’m assuming the systems that you’ve developed have kind of allowed you to keep working normally throughout this time?

Yeah, yeah. I’ve been working on one piece together with John Cruwys from Soft Bodies about the future of virtual workspaces. Because he lives in London and I live in Amsterdam, we said it would be really nice to develop a virtual space in which we could meet and discuss the design of the environment, while working on the experience. So even though it was developed beforehand, it was exhibited exactly when the lockdown started, and then we sort of made it the theme of the work itself.

Is it the one on Soft Bodies, the Weightless Bricks collaboration?

Exactly. It’s quite timely, [but] we didn’t plan that. It was just broadly thinking about how we can communicate within the digital, and what would be other more sensory means to communicate through space with each other. You know, having another dimension apart from the 2D screen you usually share with each other.

So, the idea is to kind of enhance the visual and the auditory with the tactile and the more embodied dimension of moving through space, and then to see how that can be used to help other forms of communication that are more implicit.

In general to your question, I think I did just continue doing my work. Of course it’s quite limited in terms of exhibiting and doing more participatory things like workshops at the moment, but I recently started my PHD as well, researching how mixed reality can be used within the architecture design process.

Ah okay, what does that entail?

For that I’m just building this—it’s a lot about the way the architecture studio works as an actor within the creation of architectural knowledge. As a design participant, what’s the importance of working within that specific space? What kind of information can we embed within physical models, and sketches, and drawings? What do they mean for the design process? So I started building a VR experience within my house, to create additional spaces to work in while being at home.

Wow, it’s kind of crazy that you can just add space non-physically and really expand your environment through this, I think it’s so interesting. I mean it really kind of seems like the future of work, especially with this pandemic. Do you think everything is going to start decentralising?

Not yet, but I think the freedom we are being given through these technologies to access a certain amount of information wherever we are—I think that’s quite amazing.

But I think the way the digital modes of communication are being used at the moment is still quite two-dimensional, and still quite limited in what we can bring across. I think it’s very crucial to start thinking about how to relate the other dimensions present in the way we interact that are not yet possible to communicate through the digital. There is so much information in a conversation that’s being lost if it’s not live.

It’s super interesting, if you think about the potential to do things like remote surgery, or all the future jobs applications that really need very specialised work. It can allow people to be somewhere at one time if they’re in several places. It’s super exciting to think about VR and AR, and their potential to communicate real-time information embedded within space.

It’s something I work a lot with. We think a lot about embedding that type of information in different tactile objects, and how that helps us to understand them. For example, an email could also be a piece of fruit, and then what does the size and texture and ripeness and weight of that fruit tell you about the content that’s being communicated?

The physical aspect of your work is so interesting to me. I read on Soft Bodies that you were talking a lot about mixed reality, and I saw the rake and the watering can that you developed and it made me think a lot. It’s really radical, because it completely changes the way you think about design, I think, especially in terms of function, because it means that the function of something completely changes. The watering can doesn’t have to make its shape to actually hold water, it’s more about physical recognition.

Exactly yeah.

What do you think that prompts for the future of designing?

I think the fact that certain objects look similar to the way they look in real life is just to increase intuition and make them easier to interact with in the virtual world. You know, you start with a rake and a watering can because somebody knows how to handle that, and even thought the effect is different in the MR world than it would be in the real world, there is no question that everybody would try to tip the watering can and see what would come out of the spout, just because it has a handle you know how to use. It’s relatively easy to let somebody feel quite intuitively within these virtual worlds.

For the future of designing objects, it’s interesting to start thinking about this. One thing is this embeddedness of space within physical objects; thinking about how we can organise our space and spatial information within objects so that one could be embedded within the other, and then you can add all these other three dimensional sensations.

The other thing is this kind of extension through your body and the object of the space, to really think about these objects as tools that you can use within the virtual. Now we use controllers and keyboards to access the digital, but we can create objects that really allow your body to interact with the environment in a different way; you could start really using your body to interact with digital content.

Then I think one other aspect is definitely the question of how these objects look like if they are not being seen within the virtual. They can have any appearance they wish to have, and not just any but also as many as they want, or you want, or somebody else wants. So I think there is this tension between their physical look and their acting within the physical as these portals to their virtual counterpart or parts.

This is a tension we’re starting to explore through experiments, I think it’s going to become very interesting when more of these objects are going to be developed to observe that.

Lastly, we should think about what might be typologies that are native to the virtual world and that might be intuitively accessed in the future. What will these things be that we will find new ways of acting or interacting with? I think this question will be very interesting within the realm of object design in the future.

I think what’s fascinating to me is it creates this flexibility in our realities. Both in the physical because it has the potential to completely reshape what we’re surrounded by aesthetically, and also in the digital because we won’t have that complete familiarity of what an object is going to do. It’s going to give the material, or the virtual material, this kind of agency that it doesn’t really have now in the physical. It’s going to be really interesting in how we define our relationships with our bodies and objects and space.

It’s also a question of perception, whether you believe that things already have that agency, and if you perceive them in a lesser way in relation to humans. There is a lot of theory on that and my hypothesis is also that working within MR allows you, in a quite playful way, to explore that relationship that might be there. I think it’s really nice to start thinking about the potential that lies in all the things that surround us, that we are used to seeing as inanimate, or being used with a certain scope or meaning, but to strip that all off and really think about their material properties and their beings in themselves.

Are you an architect as well?

No I’m not.

Ah okay. So what I’m kind of trying to do with my pHD is this blend between these immersive technologies, architecture, and cognitive neuroscience. I think it’s really exciting to think about these technologies in relation to how our brains work and perceive our surroundings. There’s a lot in the psychology of child development, how babies start to learn what their outside environment consists of by touching. We use all these modalities to understand our surroundings.

How are we going to get to know these worlds that are existing within these digital multiverses, and how are we going to interact with them, how are they going to alter our thinking about the things that surround us, our realities? That’s where I try to position my work. I’m not doing installations that say anything in particular—they’re more models or experiments that are speculative of something that might play a role in the future.

One of the struggles that I feel about the digital and digital design is its potential to fundamentally change the way we perceive tradition in design. I’ve always struggled with the idea that the digital might wipe out very old forms of craft and forms of physical interaction.

I don’t think so, but I mean I think it’s very hard if you work with certain technologies, they become your tools and there’s a high level of craft involved in the making of these experiences. There’s a level of skills in different disciplines that to me resonates strongly with the idea of craft, especially in the making of these MR objects, which almost reintroduces a certain level of sensibility for craft and handmade things within these experiences. Our interest in general is really not to mend one or the other, the idea is for this physical and virtual realm to coexist and to help and enhance each other. They’ll always have different qualities, and there will be overlappings, and there will be tensions. It will never be either or I think. I understand it more as an additional layer that helps us to perceive our environment and have more speculative conversations about the things we live with.

I think you’re right, because I guess even when you talk about an MR experience,  you have this awareness that touch is going to be the primary driver of recognition, it forces you to consider the intricacies and finesse of physical design even more than when you have sight to fill the blank in.

I ask because I have this intrinsic perception of the digital that’s negative that I can’t justify, and I’m trying to find ways to—I don’t know—I guess as an artist you have to be really conscious like you said, to make sure there is that interaction.

I think many people do have that. In architecture, it’s always been quite difficult to convince people to put on the headset and see what I’m working on. I think all things that are partially digitally produced often mingle together. It’s quite necessary to not make these differentiations so strong and to see it as a tool. At least for me, it’s never about using it to replace something else, it’s more of using it to help me express or explore or experiment with things. I go back and forth between analog and digital making, I sketch a lot and build a lot of physical models of these installations beforehand. It’s a quite open ended - almost dialogue - between the tools that you find and use. I think I never took the digital making out of the equation.

I guess the physical still kind of has to be at the root of the digital, which maybe is something that isn’t always thought about in these scenarios, Because, I mean, we are physical people, we’re made of cells, so for there to be any kind of familiarity within the digital it has to be grounded in and birthed from the physical.

It’s also that we are lacking a lot of software that allows us to draw intuitively, and devices that allow you to move back and forth between the two. I think for what physical model making and sketching allows us to do there is not a digital counterpart. It will eventually be designed and developed though, because as each discipline progresses it has its own needs. The problem is not the digital, there’s just a desire for a bigger flexibility within the softwares that are there. It’s changing too, rapidly. People who use these technologies also start creating their own tools. All these disciplines have become so complex that I think it will be really interesting when they meld more strongly together.

Definitely, I think in every kind of sector of society there’s above towards the interdisciplinary now, because we’re realising that things can’t really work in isolation.

Yeah, absolutely.

Before we finish, do you want to talk a little bit about your Virtual Fruits project? 

Yeah, Virtual Fruits started with my colleague from the Bartlett who did her masters thesis on education. We started running workshops together, like after school clubs. It was very much exploring while doing, and setting up these workshops and working with such a varied group of people like students and really young kids, all from different backgrounds. It was super important and it influenced the way I work a lot.

I think that maybe where this notion of playfulness comes in, in being quite open to just doing a workshop with a group of kids you’ve never seen before and developing a MR experience together. I try to give them as much freedom as I can to design their own physical objects and virtual worlds, and they are often very inspiring, especially their reaction to being in VR for the first time and having this tactile/visual feedback. I think when working with these technologies frequently you learn quickly and they stop being a novelty, you take things for granted, so it’s very helpful to have these experiences to explore totally new things through these educational situations.