Hyperphysicality: The Physical World's Answer to the Metaverse
Should I stay or should I go?
"Space is a doubt" prophesied Georges Perec a few years ago. By a curious coincidence, the post-pandemic exterior has now become anxiety-provoking, and the reasons and motivation for going to the office, to a restaurant, to a hotel, to a museum, or on a trip have ceased to be self-evident. FOGO, the famous Fear-of-Going-Out, affects one-third of people in the US, according to a survey conducted by Qualtrics.
Going outside is now subject to evaluation: should I stay or should I go? A point of friction in which hyperphysicality comes into play. Hyper, what? Hyperphysicality—originally a notion borrowed from dance, translating the "over-expression" of bodies. In the wake of the pandemic, it has been appropriated by the architect Thomas Heatherwick, in residence at MIT, as the essential soulfulness of physical spaces after lockdown. As Thomas Heatherwick explains, "The new thing post-Covid is that if you have to leave your home, the physical world—outside of public life—has to be really conscious of how it's going to connect with your feelings and emotions because it's not this automatic thing that you have to engage with as much as you did in the past."
So for hospitality professionals, retailers, designers and architects, but also those in HR, it's about giving "higher life" to physical spaces and objects, and injecting culture to get us out of our cocoons. It is this quest that grounds hyperphysicality. Because post-lockdown the observation remains the same, for consumers (Foot Traffic in stores is still 20% lower than pre-pandemic levels, via Statista) as for employees (70% do not expect a normal return to the office, via YouGov) the return to the physical world can be quite challenging.
In short, as researcher Deborah Tannen explains, comfort is in the absence. We need to find new reasons to do things together: "The comfort of being face-to-face with others could be replaced by a greater comfort in absence, especially with those we don't know intimately. Instead of asking, "Is there a reason to do this online?" we will ask, "Is there a good reason to do this in person?"—and we may need to be reminded and convinced that there is.
Reenchanting the indoor physical space...
Faced with this observation, the physical world has not said its last word. Following Thomas Heatherwick's lead, several architects and designers show that there is no lack of reasons to rediscover hyperphysicalized and welcoming spaces.
Pioneer companies, such as Google, have tackled the challenge of hyperphysicality by creating new hybrid office spaces that combine conviviality, community, modularity and distance. Familiar with the war for talent, they have understood that the back-to-the-office can also be a competitive advantage to invest in.
More good news for hyperphysicality: the inner imagination, compressed (and inspired?) by Covid, is at work. New physical or digital devices augment the space to meet two major challenges: How can we make it more tactile? How can we make it more attractive?
Answers are emerging. In retail, for example, the home/movement equation can be solved by a carefully studied design. Andres Résinger's meditative interiors or Eduard Eremchuk's tactile walls come to mind. Ideas also at work in Warby Parker's concept store in Chicago.
And glorifying the outdoors!
The outdoors are not off limits. They can also become spectacular again. The work of the artist Patrick Shearn at Poetic Kinetics shows that it is possible to no longer "doubt" the spaces, but to enjoy them.
Little Island, a new, free public park pier within the larger Hudson River Park, that opened in may 2021, also has that touch of hyperphysicality. Indeed, it has been designed to create “the feeling of leaving Manhattan behind” according to designer Thomas Heatherwick.
Because the outdoors, with the help of nature and technology, can become spectacularly grand again, as evidenced by the giant trees of the Garden Bay urban forest, designed by Wilkinson Eyre and Grant Associates in Singapore. As proof, this augmented nature has attracted more than 50 million visitors since its opening.
Building hyperphysical experiences
While new rules are written every day, the best hyperphysical experiences should have the following 4 characteristics to be most successful:
1- An element of surprise, a promise of serendipity
Surprise and Delight. This notion of extra soul, or enhanced life, is surprising because it requires breaking the codes and bringing the awe factor. The Swedish design firm Front, for example, has designed an intriguing new collection of furniture. Entitled Nature Furniture, the collection is inspired by the shapes and patterns created by plants and animals. According to Front, the project required years of development and research into the effects on physical and mental health, as well as the cultural and psychological importance of natural environments. The goal? To bring fragments of nature into our homes to enjoy its benefits. As one of the founders explains, "Numerous studies have proven that being close to nature has many therapeutic qualities and is good for personal and public health. [This is] the fundamental part of man's relationship with his environment that we wish to experience."
2- Exploring the role of emotion in design
Nothing new here, just dealing with what is unique to human beings: emotion. A notion that can be translated in many ways. An example: in Denmark, the company Tableau exploits the healing power of design in a new mental health space that opened a few weeks ago. As psychotherapist Xanthippi de Vito, the man behind this atypical space, explains to the media Wallpaper, "I made it clear that the whole experience, from the entrance and removal of shoes, through the doors of the space, to the ritual of the exit, had to be thoughtfully designed. Together we set out to create a space that reverses rhetoric and welcomes a playful sense of curiosity." The outcome? A space where everything engages in a healing process. "Each room is painted with very subtle tones and cool hues on the walls and woodwork," says designer Julius Værnes Iversen, who led the project. The ceilings match the walls, but in much darker tones. As Iversen explains, "This way you feel anchored to the floor, as if a big blanket is coming down on you. Nothing is left to chance, not even the bathrobes and towels, which are both heavy and soft, giving the user the feeling of being hugged.
3- Places, spaces and sociality: a strong sense of community
Third places, a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in 1989, refer to places where people spend time between home ('first' place) and work ('second' place). They play an increasingly important role in strengthening our sense of community, becoming the “living room” of society, where we exchange ideas, have fun, and build relationships.
In France, a recently launched library took inspiration from this very concept. It’s particularity? It is made up from a collection of smaller social spaces—‘bubbles’"—which allow individual activities to take place either privately or in tandem.
Can hyperphysical spaces be transformative on a larger scale? Carlo Moreno's fifteen-minutes cities or Dr. Mark Lutter's inspired Chartered Cities also feed urban hyperphysicality projects, placing the humanization of spaces at the heart of the movement. In Senegal, the Akon City, a six billion dollar project launched on August 31st by Senegalese star Akon and his partner John Karras, a Hollywood producer, designed by architect Hussein Bakri, aims to hybridize businesses, spaces, arts and creation in its Senewood district. Hyperphysical aesthetics are also surprisingly present in architect Vincent Callebaut's SolarPunks worlds and his creations that are both supernatural and harmoniously integrated into their environment. In its highest version, hyperphysicality succeeds in the challenge of giving back to nature its power without looking artificial.
"The city of tomorrow will no longer be inert."
4- The tactile era: haptics, affects and more
The sense of touch—which was undermined during the covid—is coming back in force and in unexplored dimensions. In particular, researchers are increasingly interested in the concept of interoception. What is it about? The perception by your brain of the state of your body, transmitted by receptors located on all your internal organs. For example, a spams, a shiver, a sigh, or a tension of the muscles... Elements that could also be found in hyperphysicality experiences in full consciousness.
Inspired by the concept of curtains, Be Right Back is a singular project that was designed “in consideration of individual needs found in relaxation and stress relief.” The push-pull motion enables its user to "fidget" - an action known to relieve stress and anxiety. In the words of the designer: “Be right back was not only designed with the intention of creating things, but to stimulate ideas and prompt discussion. For it to take form/life, the design needs to be interpreted by the individual – what an ideal chair could look like for its user, with recognition of its haptic systems and speculative possibilities.”
When digital seeks its hyperphysicality
Thus, this quest for hyperphysicality is also becoming a major stake for digital-first entities with a strong desire to be anchored in reality. Here is how it translates:
More intuitive, more "real" interfaces thanks to haptic technologies or AR. Poparazzi for example, a social application launched in May 2021 has implemented haptic onboarding. Specifically, the phone vibrates as you watch the introductory video, mimicking the haptic feedback you get when you take a picture with a traditional camera. And the intensity increases when the application highlights the burst functionality. But it can go even further. Teams at Meta, formerly Facebook, are working on ReSkin, an artificial skin that could introduce the sense of touch into the metaverse. At the same time, the amazing augmented reality "handles" of the Chinese Shadow Creator give a haptic sense to digital extensions in the physical world, fulfilling the promise of the Dynamic Spatial Media of the ex-Apple designer, Bret Victor.
This quest for hyperphysicality can also be expressed through experiences anchored in the real world, such as these DNVBs that are launching physical stores with advanced experiential concepts, reinventing the point of sale to make it a living place. The approach targets all kinds of sectors. Recently, the Van Gogh Museum, in partnership with yoga brand Manduka, launched a capsule collection inspired by three paintings Van Gogh did while he was at the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence clinic. The objective is to offer a collection of "mental merch" that goes beyond the work of the painter, to embody his humanity, himself known to have experienced periods of mental vulnerability. A vulnerability that resonates in everyone... especially at this time...
Another experience of hyperphysicality to which everyone can refer to surrounds the purchase of the iconic iPhone where every detail of the unboxing is carefully studied... from the inspection of the cables / earpieces held in origami paper or the removal of the screen protector, even before turning on the phone... Nothing is left to chance as there is a "packaging room" where design employees will spend months and months opening +100 prototypes with different materials and shapes to offer the best possible experience. In short, you will have understood, the fields of application are numerous.
"Defictionalization," which refers to the reproduction in our physical spaces of fictional worlds from television, movies, gaming and more is also booming. Already in 2019, Warner Bros and Super Fly X launched "The FRIENDS Experience", an interactive celebration of the series in the form of an ephemeral pop-up, with the possibility of discovering reproductions of sets or having a drink in an identical café at Central Perk! Due to its success, it became a permanent exhibition. Since then, the examples have grown at a vertiginous speed. For example, Airbnb is in the process of making defictionalization an important part of its offer. Thus, in partnership with Disney, the American firm has put Winnie the Pooh's house up for rent, but not only…
In recent weeks it has also offered to rent the house from the film Scream or Carrie Bradshaw's apartment from Sex in the City. Behind these new offers, there is a man, Bruce Vaughn, who has been running Airbnb's new Experiential Creative Product team for a few weeks now, after working in special effects in the film industry.
The gaming world is also a universe in search of its hyperphysicality. Among the examples, let's mention the game Tomb Raider, which published a book of 40 recipes inspired by the heroine Lara Croft's travels for the 25th anniversary of the game. Another interesting example is Design Home, a popular design game (ed. note: downloaded 100k times last September according to Sensor Tower) that launched a full-fledged e-commerce site in 2020 called Design Home Inspired. So when players fall in love with products in the game, they can buy them IRL.
Imitating the living through biomimicry. This term, which describes practices that are inspired by nature and imitate its strategies, offers interesting avenues for innovation. Current examples include the biomimetic fashion brand Auroboros (Alexander McQueen) and its digital clothes that mimic the growth of a flower, blooming, flowering and then dying before your eyes. Another fascinating example: the beauty brand Unseen and its amazing make-up range that changes color under the flash of your smartphone. A concept that reminds us of the phenomenon of bioluminescence in nature.
Thus, if in September 2021 the term "metaverse" was searched for 368K times on Google, worldwide perimeter (14x more than in September 2020), hyperphysicality represents the exact counterpoint of META's Promethean fantasy, like the other side of the same coin, in a delicate ballet between bits and atoms—guess who is building stores—and a constantly renewed mesh between hyperphysicality and hyperdigitality.
Were you afraid of a world entirely made of fake virtual? Well, the contrary is happening: we are not "above" the world, but within it, in a mixture of infra and real multi-sensoriality. And now is the time to experiment and play.
Written with my dear friend Patrick Kervern and translated from french.
Many thanks to the Whatsinsider duo, Matt Klein and Prakhar Shivam for reviewing draft versions of this article :)