Augmented Architectural Reality: Resonant and Designed by Architects
Human consciousness, one that is not merely in the brain but is fully embodied, needs an external environment pregnant with meanings and emotions for its self-awareness.
— Perez-Gomez, Alberto. Attunement. MIT Press.
You’ve been considering getting one of those virtual reality headsets for a while now. At first, you thought they were just a fad. Then you were mad about having to log in to the Oculus 2 via your account with the tech-giant, Facebook. And now you’re just baffled by Facebook becoming Meta.
So you understand you have got to stay ahead of the curve, you feel the pressure to impress your clients with state-of-the-art walk-throughs of newly rendered spaces. And while, yes, these are the most obvious applications of the technology for architects, the implications of the comprehensive rollout of this technology into our lives, lives as both architects and citizens, lies much deeper. And are much more consequential.
Let us situate ourselves.
Augmented reality (called AR), not virtual reality, will be the first tangible hardware expression of highly personalized artificial intelligence (AI) to be in the hands, actually, faces, of a large swath of the consumer population. Why? Because AR is transparent to the rest of the built environment. And as architects know well, we are remarkably sensitive to the spaces and places in our lives, we seek attachment with them (and consistently prioritize bettering where we reside over abandoning it).
To understand the impact of emerging autonomous computing capabilities (powered by the exponentially increasing power of computing) on the architectural profession, we must stand at the intersection of neuro-science, socio-ethics, and design theory. And there, in the crosshairs, we must ask ourselves to arrive open to the identification of consonance and the resolution of dissonance.
If you are screaming inside, worried that the last sentence is just some California-jargon about who actually knows what. You are not wrong. But you are not completely right either.
How you are right: Yes, I am Californian. Complete with enrollment in a primary school named “Synergy,” where us students were “waved out” for being disruptive (silently gestured at with a subtle wave of the hand by the teacher, and required to “quickly-and-quietly” walk to the door and touch the door handle *all the while* reflecting on how the disruption was impeding others’ learning — rather than be sent away, we were bid to reflect and return).
All dismissable as simply some “woo, woo Bay Area granola”? Not quite.
How you (might be) wrong:
What happens in the human brain when we do things like synchronously wave our bodies (be it in the form of my family’s prayer gestures, or elementary school’s hippie-inspired pedagogical “wave-outs”) is a part of an area of research exploding in the fields of neuroscience and Human-Robot Interaction. An area of research seeking the scientific properties and significance of RESONANCE. While this is a research domain with serious impacts on science, technology, and social science, it is also an already expansive and growing academic domain of inquiry for the important reason that researchers truly “don’t know” the bounds of the domain.
You might know of “resonating” by its other names: harmonizing, synchronizing, vibing, flowing, waving, attuning, empathizing, intuiting.
While ostensibly vague feeling words, in fact, neuroscience is proving the opposite. For example, as brain researcher Robert B. Glassman has found, brainwaves are structured in near-octaves with a 1:2 ratio relationship. Literal harmony of wavelengths. And research, like that by social psychologist Bernard Weiner, reveals that “when cognitions are not in harmony, processes are instigated to help bring cognitive structures into consonance.”
Harmony, no longer just for music.
But harmony, or resonance, or synchrony, etc., isn’t just “agreement.” Seeking resonance is not about seeking uniformity, in fact, much the opposite. Confucius said, “the good person harmonizes but does not seek sameness, whereas the petty person seeks sameness but does not harmonize.” It is not just about morality. It is also about our neurological wiring for pleasure or want. As Resonance scholar Derek Lomas explains, “We value the resolution of dissonance, not just the ‘having’ of consonance. Purely consonant songs are boring. All good songs — and all good stories — involve the introduction of dissonance.”
As scientists study human interaction with mechanized technology (so-called “non-biological agents”) they are coming to specifically seek “human-motor resonance.” Essentially, they are seeking machines that synchronize to the expectations of human brains so that they can serve as supportive entities rather than disruptive or eerie interventions. Human-motor resonance promises a world where AI-robots are what Joanna Bryson calls “prosthetics” rather than the robots we fear will emerge in an increasingly dystopian-mechanical society. These aren’t robots that will be so human that they will take over, rather, these are robots so sensitive to human cognition, that they support that which is most intrinsically human.
A team of Italian human-robot interaction researchers explained in a 2012 paper entitled, Measuring Human-Robot Interaction Through Motor Resonance, that two identical diapasons in close proximity of one another vibrate at the same frequency and produce the same tone even if only one was agitated into motion; that a human brain watching a gloved robotic hand, when it looks or moves life-like enough, activates the mirror neuron system and the human’s ability to predict where the robotic hand might go. Just as it would with a human hand.
But this is only when it looks or moves life-like enough, otherwise, no response. In humans interacting with humans, this facilitates a kind of “mutual understanding.” What does it facilitate when interacting with an automated mechanical device?
With the rapid entrance of competent and discreet augmented reality hardware into the general smart-phone-toting consumer base in the next five years, the answer to this question will lie almost assuredly in the hands of engineering-driven organizations, should architectural innovators not step in and join the philosophers and social scientists already arriving at the table.
We are entering an era where you will be able to don glasses of any fashion sensibility and have digitized information projected onto the built *real* environment in front of you. This is not virtual reality, it is a reality with visual information overlaid onto the world you’ve always known via light projected onto your retina. A precarious (inevitable?) reality where we could easily, ever so casually, step into a progression in which the human body becomes what Satinder P. Gill of Cambridge University calls, “an electronic body.” But nonetheless, a digital reality that for the first time, arguably since the dawn of digital technology, makes the built environment unambiguously CENTRAL.
So while you might feel hesitance and caution towards this emerging ubiquity in computing, as any reasonable person should, as professionals of the architectural community you should also feel inspired. Titillated. Moved.
Alberto Perez-Gomez, in his book Attunement, captured the essence of what power architects still have in this uncertain world, “When most fully realized, architecture offers the gift of psychosomatic completeness, true health and well-being for the social body, a space of appearance consonant with its actions and habits.”
The role of architecture is psychological, it is rootedly embodied, and relies on the inhabitants having social intelligence. As the actors in physical space becoming increasingly non-human, our bodies are at risk of fragmentation.
No, all becoming Luddites is no true solution. Rather we, design professionals, experts in the intersection of intuition, creating the right vibe, atmosphere, facilitating social harmony and allowing for (work-)flow, must start designing the autonomous systems to reflect what we know, and what we feel about our integral humanity and how it is tethered deeply to the environments we build for our communities.
Gill warns that designs for this automated computing powered future we are living into must be more than artifact design. We must re-examine our awareness of resonance, of playing with tension and release in architectural design, of our commitment to the embodied human experience of those who inhabit space. We must imagine how to leverage the emergence of spatial computing as not a tool, but rather a complete taxonomic evolution of the discipline of architecture.
This is a call for us, lovers of the built environment, with our distinct intuitions about the harmonies (personal, interpersonal, and societal) that architecture affords, to seek a deep, resonating, familiarity with this new technology, the speed at which it will alter the human experience of the built environment, and thus, the human condition itself.
This is a warning, that should the design-of-the-built-environment-professionals fail to become immersed in the XR cannon, our integrity as biological human entities will be at stake.
Remember, parts of our brain do not engage when presented with certain mechanical stimuli while the human equivalent would trigger us to control cognitively for mutual understanding.
And the value of mutual understanding can not be downplayed.
Weiner, B. (1996). Human motivation: Metaphors, theories, and research. Sage.
Digital Future Society (Director). (2020). The coexistence of artificial and natural intelligence. Interview with Joanna Bryson [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HuwFJmqCAE
Gill, Satinder P. (2008). Socio-ethics of interaction with intelligent interactive technologies. AI and Society 22 (3):283–300.
Glassman R. B. (1999). Hypothesized neural dynamics of working memory: several chunks might be marked simultaneously by harmonic frequencies within an octave band of brain waves. Brain research bulletin, 50(2), 77–93.
Gómez, A. P. (2016). Attunement: Architectural meaning after the crisis of modern science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
[Confucius] Li, C. (2008). The ideal of harmony in ancient Chinese and Greek philosophy. Dao, 7(1), 81–98.
Lomas, J. Derek, van der Maden, Willem, & Xue, Haian. (2020?) Harmony in Systems Design.
Sciutti, A., Bisio, A., Nori, F., Metta, G., Fadiga, L., Pozzo, T., & Sandini, G. (2012). Measuring human-robot interaction through motor resonance. International Journal of Social Robotics, 4(3), 223–234.