When we talk about VR, we talk about the ways it will make our jobs easier and change the way we work. But Andreea Ion Cojocaru believes that there’s another, equally important story to tell about VR: how it will change us.
Cojocaru is the founder of NUMENA, a German company that offers architectural design services and develops a Unity-based tool for architectural design in virtual reality. As this tool has matured, Cojocaru has noticed it is changing the way people behave. The architects are starting to design new kinds of buildings. More unexpectedly, some clients are performing the architectural design work all on their own.
We caught up with her earlier this month to explore this unexpected effect of VR. She talked about the different ways the technology can alter the ways our brains work, how it eliminates differences in how we see the world, and how it makes anyone into an architect. We also talked about the dangers of this era-defining technology, and the imperative that we understand it—so we can change our own behavior, for our own benefit.
Sean Higgins: For people who are using spatial computing for a unique application, like you, I like to ask—What’s your background? How did you come to VR?
Andreea Ion Cojocaru: I was trained as a traditional brick-and-mortar architect, and I practiced for many years. I quit my job to start a company that does VR and architecture because I had been looking for a way to combine programming with design that was meaningful to me.
When I saw VR, I realized it offered so many exciting promises. The technology is about being able to understand space, and being able to design space, which is something I knew how to do as an architect. But it was also about using programming to add behaviors for the users of those spaces. For me, that was amazing—it was a kind of proposition about combining programming with design that I had never encountered.
First, an easy question. Let’s say I have an idea for a VR tool like yours. I want to use VR to redesign factories, or train employees in dangerous situations. Do you have some advice about how I can get started?
I don’t think it’s for everyone yet, but for the right kind of people it is ripe enough to be tremendously beneficial. The right kind of people are those that are—this is super cheesy—are the ones that are comfortable being uncomfortable, you know, so they’re the ones that don’t expect clear answers that are not going to have a nervous breakdown if they buy a piece of hardware and it takes two days to get it to work.
You have to have the kind of team, or be in charge of the kind of organization that can handle that uncertainty without breaking down. If you are, then then this is an amazing journey and you should start now. If you’re not, then I think things will look a bit brighter in two or three years.
I interviewed an architect who said that very few people have the ability to design a building in 2D, and then imagine how it will feel in real life. He also believed VR would make it possible for anyone to imagine any space. Do you agree?
I agree fully with it. But think that’s a small part of the story.
There are aspects of architectural design that we’re just starting to uncover. I’ll give you an example: Maybe a year and a half ago, neuroscientists stumbled upon a condition called aphantasia. Five to ten percent of people are in this category, which means they don’t see images in their heads. They think in different kinds of ways—they just don’t see images.
To show what I mean, about a year ago, someone on twitter posted this drawing of five apples. The first iteration is vivid and the right color. Then it progresses getting sketchier and more abstract, all the way to the fifth apple. And the person was asking, When someone tells you to close your eyes and imagine an apple, which one do you see?
And tons of people said they saw two or three. I was shocked. I was floored, because I am definitely a five. I am in the category of what they now call hyperphantasia, which means I have a mental ability to imagine hyper vivid detail. If I close my eyes, I can imagine a waterfall, and see the sparkling reflections in the drops of water.
So I realized, in our culture, we never asked each other: What do you see in your head?
That question has many repercussions. Think of meetings, for example, when you’re figuring out an architecture detail. I’m sitting at a table, making a sketch of some spatial condition. I show it to the engineer and I ask, Are you getting this? And they say yes, but are they really seeing what I’m seeing? I can’t know.
And VR is very relevant to this discussion, When you visualize a building in VR, and you’re showing it to clients, architects, or engineers, VR gives you the ability to show people something that they couldn’t have imagined in their heads just by looking at drawings. We bypass the differences that might exist in our cognitive and neural structure. And that’s potentially huge.
So there’s value in VR for showing people. But that’s not your only focus—You’ve also talked about using VR to change the way people behave. Can you explain that?
What VR enables is what I refer to as synthetic human behavior.
What do I mean by that? You go to architecture school, and then you practice as an architect, learning to understand behavior in terms of how the body moves through space, how the body reacts to heat, to cold, and to light. The best architects are able to design spaces not just in terms of aesthetics, but also in terms of how they accommodate the human body and get people to act a specific way. In VR, however, I am able to overlay other types of behaviors that human bodies are not born with. This is what I call synthetic human behavior.
What’s the value of these synthetic behaviors?
Right—Why would you need other kinds of behaviors, if the end goal is to just end up with a physical building?
The product that we make is a VR simulation platform where you design buildings at one to one scale. You don’t start by sketching something. You start, for instance, by moving an actual full-size wall into place. And in order for you to handle that, you need special behaviors.
So when I’m designing using the platform, I have “Superman” augmented behaviors. I am flying around the building, I’m constantly repositioning myself, I am picking up walls that are three meters by five meters and moving them from here to here.
This must change our designs too, right? How are the designs different when people use your platform?
They’re different. We’re just in the middle of figuring out how.
You end up making different decisions about the shape of spaces when you are embodied at one to one. Because the traditional way of designing architecture is from a God’s perspective—you’re looking from the top and you’re sketching a building that’s small. So you always have an abstracted, ultra-rational relationship to the building that you’re designing.
The idea with our platform is that you make certain decisions using this rational perspective. Because when it comes to things like the structure or the planning of your building, you should try to be as rational as possible.
But when it comes to the proportions of a room, the feeling of the room, or the phenomenal properties of the room, then you should turn off the overview. Let yourself react to the space and experience it. When you are at one-to-one scale in a virtual space, next to these monster walls, your design will be different.
And I think this path will lead to different looking buildings and spaces. We’ve never had this kind of VR ability before in the history of architecture, we’ve never been able to make design decisions are that embodied one-to-one scale ever before. So it’s all terribly exciting.
Noumena’s tool seems like it would make architects better at their jobs, but also help non-architects to participate in the design process.
Yes, that’s something super important. We are the only company that I know of that has a product geared at non-architects. We would love architects to use our product, of course, but we are most interested in how non-professionals use it. We’re experimenting with putting clients in VR before the project is finished, so we’re not just showing them how things look at the end.
The next step is what can the client design by themselves in our VR tool? What if they don’t need us for some design tasks because they understand so much more? The client’s agency explodes, because they aren’t limited to reviewing the design by looking at lines on paper.
When people go into VR to design, so many interesting things start to happen. You have a complete revelation. All of a sudden, you can do something you grew up thinking you could never do, just because you never went to architecture school. And then here you are, moving walls around and designing your own thing. So on a personal level, there’s a total transformation—finding out you’re an awesome architect in two hours is a pretty big deal.
So your VR tool doesn’t just change how people behave in terms of architectural design, it also changes how people understand themselves and their own abilities.
This is an aspect of VR that we’re also very interested in. A lot of products launch on the market with the story that it’s going to help you get a specific job done faster and better, right? We are trying to introduce a second storyline to this product. Sure it’s going to make the design process for your house better and faster, but we think it might change you as well.
Architecture seems like a great space to work out a lot of these deep questions. But I see that you also work with medical training. How does the “augmented behavior” you can access in VR apply to that use case?
In the case of medical training, the situation is almost the reverse of architecture. When we’re training designers to use VR and design things differently, we want to introduce new behaviors. But when it comes to training people for tasks they will perform in the real world, introducing augmented behavior is actually dangerous. Because they will learn how to do something well with that augmented piece of behavior in VR, and they’ll get stuck when they will try to apply that knowledge in physical reality. Right?
That’s why a lot of people ask us, Why don’t you just focus on architecture? Why in the world are you doing medical training? From the outside, it seems like I’m doing exactly the opposite of what a good founder is supposed to do, which is to focus on one thing.
But we’ve learned amazing lessons from doing medical training. We’ve learned to ask, Is all training the same? Are all processes humans do the same? What are the differences?
So in this case, we’ve been able to identify how medical training is different than training architects in VR in the way that I’ve just explained. And that’s really helped us gain so much insight and has helped us structure, how we conceive of these trainings, and where’s the role of augmented human behavior and what it is.
The basic insight here is that, by teaching people how to act in a virtual space, you’re also teaching them how to act in order to do their jobs. And that can either be helpful—like in architectural design—or potentially harmful—like in medical training.
Right. With medical personnel we want to teach them skills that translate accurately from VR to physical reality. But with architectural design, we do not have these restrictions. We want to help them ditch the old ways in which they were approaching architectural design and explore new possibilities.
By giving them this access to these different behaviors, we’re hoping to literally open up different cognitive pathways in the brain. There’s amazingly interesting research coming out that shows that the changes in the motor and visual cortex of the brain are profound when you’re in VR.
Can you talk more about that? It sounds like when you say that VR changes you, you don’t mean figuratively—you mean neurologically.
It’s unbelievable. When you fly around in VR, your eyes see you performing the kind of movements that are not compatible with what your physical body can do. And your visual cortex and your motor cortex are trying to integrate that discrepancy. Sometimes they can’t integrate it, and then you get sick. But for some people it can. And then there are these amazing activations happening in you.
We’re just beginning to understand these things. We’re just starting to read the studies. And the scientists themselves are just starting to figure out how to study these things.
What would you say is the biggest challenge that we still need to overcome in order to reach the full potential of VR?
There are huge things to figure out on the technical side, but I think we have even bigger things to figure out on the cultural and political side.
It’s a massive undertaking to figure out the question, How do we talk to the public about this? How do we balance what the technology can do against what we’re fearful of, like collection of biometric data by hardware companies? Because I realize that some of the things I’m saying about changes to your brain and so on, they are hard for some people to process. There is also the issue of legislation. And the need to protect users from the harmful effects of the technology, and from data being collected and used in ways that are hard to understand clearly in these early days.
Conferences and podcasts that cover immersive tech tend to do it from a purely technological perspective. They also tend to be marketing—people showing the latest coolest project that they’ve been working on, which is great, we need that too.
But the question remains: How do we create the space for the dialogue that we need? How do we start an open conversation that bridges tech, culture and politics? We need to look at this range if we want to have a full understanding of this technology.
I like to end all of the interviews with this question, and sometimes it gets me the most interesting answer. What’s your favorite VR topic? What’s the thing that you don’t get to talk about in interviews, the thing that you wish someone would ask you about?
I’m interested in the question, Can technology change us? How do you control that process as an end user?
It’s obvious that technology is pushing us to develop certain behaviors. But, we just don’t talk about it in any serious way. When we do talk about it, we talk about meditation apps, or how, when an app sends a notification signal, we react like Pavlov’s dog.
But I feel like we need to talk about the ways that big pieces of technology like spatial computing have the potential to influence our behavior to a much larger degree.
We also need to talk about how we can use the technology to change ourselves actively, and to be more in control of how the change happens. I want people to realize the potential of technology to change themselves in whatever way they want—the potential is just monumental. You can change anything from what you think about, to what you your hand does, to how your toe reacts to something. And you can use hardware like VR to achieve this at unbelievable speed.
But the key is—and it’s a very big BUT—you need to be fully aware of these mechanisms, in full control, and have access to applications that are completely transparent about how they work.