Future of Physical Immersion + Metaverse: Part One

BY Margot Pessy

A Deep Dive with Pico Velásquez

Virtual worlds are no longer science fiction. Whether they are in the form of immersive virtual reality (VR), video games, NFT art or digital workplaces that many of us now have, our virtual and physical worlds are now merging to become one.

At this rate, we are only a few years away from living, learning, and working in virtual surroundings. But how will this affect our current environment?

To gain deeper knowledge on the meaning of the merging of these two realities, Kinestry sat down with Pico Velasquez, computational architect, multimedia director and visionaire, to talk about the role of architecture as a new hybrid model that is emerging at the intersection of our physical and virtual worlds.

Pico, you have quite an impressive and diverse work background! How did it all start?

“Since I was young I’ve always been deeply fascinated by the fields of art, music, dance, nature and mathematics. I see them all through a similar lens — a combination and congruence between forms, patterns and rhythms. I began playing the violin at the age of five, training in classical ballet at the age of ten, and have been both building and solving geometric puzzles like origami, Rubik’s cubes and tensegrities, throughout my entire life.

I was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, where my dad owned a couple of companies centered around engineering, steel construction and infrastructure design. And my mom, being one of the most creative people I know, consistently explored her art through multiple mediums, from oil painting, to welding and interior design.

When I started architecture in a fairly traditional format, it wasn’t clear where the correlation between art, architecture and mathematics would eventually collide. But after graduating from Universidad de Los Andes in Colombia, I earned a master’s degree at Harvard University in Computational Design. This is where many of my passions began to merge. I studied and experimented with complex geometries, nano-biological engineering, kinetic structures, sustainability, computational fluid dynamics, and even sensor driven interactions.

Image: 3D isokinetic structure simulation, computational architect Pico Velasquez

And you’ll see this uniformly across my work, regardless if it’s a mega structure, a product, or a world building video game. Everything that I do has the baseline of being data-driven design.”

So how did you transition from a traditional architecture background to then taking part in immersive video game design?

“I chose architecture as my main career because it represented what initially intrigued me the most: innovation in materials and form. But my interests entail so much more. Between my academics and practice, I consistently seek to combine and draw inspiration from new and non-intuitive fields — Essentially to grow my expertise as an architect into new realms I have yet to explore.

My work is my life. I think about it all day, all the time.

Everything that I’m building plays into how I see a world, how I want to express it, how I can express myself, and what I can build for others. So a couple years after working on mega structures, including a Hyatt hotel in Cartagena, high-rise building designs for Harvard, and the new Google Headquarters, I went on this journey to create more.

I realized that I needed more color in my work. I needed movement, and wanted to incorporate dance — a dynamic, different layer for experience and content, this extra dimension. I started with projection mapping where digital content was used to enhance physical spaces, such as public installations, museums and concerts.

Image: Interactive Cloud, Manhattan West Brookfield Proposal, multimedia architect Pico Velasquez

I’ve had the great pleasure to collaborate and learn from great artists and innovative groups, working on multiple scales and mediums from products to fashion, virtual reality to mathematical art.

Meeting Kenzo from Kenzo Digital was one of the most fascinating, as we explored concepts of spatial perception through his personalized interactive art. We played with materials and digital content to create hyperreal spaces, giving the user an experience that would make them question their lives. We geeked out about visual illusions, infinite tunnels, even concepts of space-time.

Image: Sting “Message in a Bottle”, LAB Rockwell Group with creative director Pico Velasquez

For example, what if we created not only the illusion of infinite spaces, but also infinite identities, infinite souls, a sequencing of higher selves versus inner selves, all experienced through the digitization of confronting yourself at different scales as you move through a space?

With extensive experience, and a desire to express my work in more ways than existing mediums allowed, I came up with the concept of an immersive performance venue called “Ombiia’’. It combines and elevates the expression of all the arts — poetry, acting, lighting, cinematography, digital content, music, and dance.

I became drawn to the combination of virtual and physical spaces wanting to explore infinite immersion in a multi-sensory space. The ideal scenario in Ombiia is for you to be inside of the performance. Actually feel that you’re inside, which is very different from only seeing it as the audience. To feel it is to genuinely believe it.

Image: Seminole Hard Rock Oculus, Rockwell Group with creative director Pico Velasquez

I saw opportunities to use technology to enhance the expression of art.

Through the project “Oculus” for the Hard Rock Casino, I got to explore some of these parts, directing pieces of architecture, music, digital content, water, and light. We worked with exemplary musicians like David Bowie, Miles Davis, and Sting to create a musical language of visuals and colors that could be dynamically felt by everyone that entered the space.

Realizing that the video game industry is the future, I wanted to be part of it. And so, I became the creative director for the multiplayer environmentalist game Superforest, the first of its kind.”

During the lecture, you talked about how the Metaverse is going to affect our spaces, but how is it affecting our identity and its meaning? Are we going towards mimicking the physical world or are we creating a new one?

“In projects like Samsung’s Social Galaxy you would be confronted with your Instagram life, in a way questioning your digital identity. Today, questioning who we are has surpassed to another level, where our virtual identities are becoming avatars.

Unlike social media, the Metaverse will breed a new form of identity.

And it won’t necessarily be linked to our physical world and lives. Part will not even be human represented, but even controlled by AI.

Image: Samsung Social Galaxy, Kenzo Digital with computational architect Pico Velasquez

But in terms of the relationship between architecture and our identities, these can be addressed as parallel topics. Our identity is what represents us. Our physical spaces help reflect part of this identity, and so does the way we look, our hobbies, what we collect, share, and like. But how does this convert into the Metaverse or into a space where your identity no longer needs to be tied to anything physical?

The question that interests me is how far will our virtual identities mimic our physical one, and what parts will adapt or completely expand in the virtual world?

For example, we currently hold onto the concept that avatars need to wear clothes. Therefore, there are brands that provide these different products that build and represent who I am. But inside of the virtual space, do our avatars need clothes, or do they need to look human at all? Within a new medium, we start with what we know. But eventually the way that we’ll design our identities will evolve. And the way that brands connect with their users will evolve with it.”

Products are no longer seen only as that, but as a way to accentuate and create culture.

Image: Samsung Social Galaxy, Kenzo Digital with computational architect Pico Velasquez
What do you think is the role of architects in the Metaverse?

“Rather than thinking about the role, what does it mean “to architect”? What exactly are we building?

I see architecture as the designing of structures and systems. Structures as shelter or boundaries, and systems as connectors of sources and outlets.

We see these congruences across different scales in both natural and man-made cases. From nano-cell radiolaria to skyscrapers, and from the body’s circulatory system to city infrastructure. The underlying purposes and strategies are all similar, always centered around efficiency.

In the Metaverse, I can think of several categories and levels which will need to be architected. Starting with structure, the simplest is to design virtual buildings and cities by mimicking what we know. Think digital doubles, or game worlds, where spaces follow our same rules and physics.

Image: “Bloom” at 299 Park Ave, Rockwell Group with multimedia artist Pico Velasquez

But then imagine, what aspects of our virtual spaces and buildings don’t need to follow those rules? And in fact when we work around efficiency, we realize that the obvious spatial continuity in a virtual setting is contradictory. We’ll teleport instantaneously between spaces, and the virtual real-time rendering of your surroundings will adapt. So basically a city as we know it, is no longer static. It is a constantly evolving organism that can be swapped, switched, and morphed, based on your interests, geolocation, demographics, actions, and more.

The other important category to architects refers to systems, in which we will need to design interactions. Meaning, the rules for which people will be able to exist and interact with each other, and the world.

But imagine, to what degree can we connect with others, when 1 billion people could be virtually standing in one single point simultaneously? Technically any subset of this group could be visible/or not to you. What does this mean in terms of experience and social bubbles?

The restructuring of these technological, economical and social structures goes beyond building buildings; we are architecting the seeds of behavior of an organic and accelerated evolution of human behavior, community and culture.

This could redefine virtually every aspect of existence.”

About Pico Velásquez

Pico Velasquez is a computational architect, multimedia director and Metaverse visionary. She comes from a background in performing arts, professionally trained as a ballet dancer to studying architecture and mathematics, followed by a master’s degree with the highest distinction from Harvard University in computational design.

Pico has collaborated with esteemed artists, architects, and industry leaders designing experiences, buildings and master plans. Her data-driven designs span across multiple scales and mediums, including mega structures, brand experiences, buildings of the future, video games, blockchain/crypto platforms, and NFT art. These include Google’s new headquarters, the Elysium memorial with Cirque du Soleil, master planning for the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities, creative direction for the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, game architect for the first environmentalist platform Superforest, and the founder of the immersive theatre, Ombiia.

Pico uses gamification with behavioral design to create immersive, interactive, and culture-centered experiences that envision the future of a sustainable ecosystem for the Metaverse, a hybrid model that seamlessly integrates our physical and virtual worlds. She is also an international lecturer, trusted advisor to art and entertainment institutions, and is currently working with selected clients on their upcoming virtual transformation that will impact the future of our built environment, our culture, and people’s lives.

Check out her work here

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