Draw & Code were approached by The University of Liverpool to co-create SHELTA, a virtual reality app built for the Oculus Quest 2. Part of the intention behind SHELTA is for students to be able to access one-to-one counselling and meditation sessions in VR. Chris, our talented creative production designer put his architectural knowledge to good use in designing the space. We quizzed him on the thought processes that led to the key design principles of the SHELTA island.
Designing space in VR (virtual reality) is similar to doing so in the physical world. As VR tricks the motor cortex into perceiving what we view in the headset as reality, the same design strategies can persist across both mediums. Therefore I leant on the learnings from my Master’s of Architecture thesis that addressed the relationship between architecture, loneliness and how space could help to improve one’s mental health in both built and digital environments. The design language used during this project was one of creating womb-like spaces that envelop the user. This idea of being enclosed provides a feeling of safety in the mind of the beholder, while the curved lines are as calming as they are non-obtrusive aesthetically. I used this ideal to inform the therapy space of the caves on the island which needed to be the most relaxing area.
The caves are set up in a way that they are both open and enclosed. As such, when you approach the caves you can see where the therapist is standing, creating an open dialogue between the person approaching therapy, perhaps for the first time, and the person who will be conducting it. So many references in popular culture to therapy are insular and clinical rather than open and approachable. Waiting rooms and closing the door behind you do not have to be the only way to create privacy. This way of opening up the approach aims to destigmatize therapy and make it transparent for those who need it rather than segmenting the practice behind obstruction.
That said, privacy is still needed. Consequently, this same language would not work for creating comfort in the person receiving the therapy. Therefore, the opposing cave to that of the therapists is oriented in a certain way in which it only presents itself to you when you are in the space of receiving therapy. Instead of being open, it envelops the user and provides privacy, and thus comfort in the idea that this is a private connection between oneself and a professional. As gathered from my thesis research, the curved walls and womb-like space of the user’s cave create the most calming environment that the architecture can provide.
The rationale behind creating space through the medium of a cave, rather than using something that appears man made, is that natural materials act as a mental balm to users and so by surrounding oneself in nature, it would be the most beneficial the architecture could be. Throughout this space, and the island, nature is interwoven in order to boost the mood of the user and create the most calm situation for them. I believe it is the combination of creating approachable, natural and enveloping spaces that helps to achieve a calm environment.
Colour has an effect on the body both physically and psychologically. It is therefore imperative to make sure that the correct colours are used to facilitate the therapeutic process. The whole island is bathed in a golden hour glow that is built of purple and orange light. This was chosen as it not only coincided with the median time that students would be using the app but also for its well-being benefits. Purple light has been associated with the ability to reduce stress in those who are in its presence. The ability to help students by de-stressing them throughout their time on the island is crucial, even if they are only visiting, it could have some beneficial effect on their mentality when leaving. Orange on the other hand is suggested to boost creativity, with the idea of being able to stimulate the mind, hopefully leading to greater discussion with the therapist, with peers or a greater focus when conducting a mindfulness session. This combination of benefits really aligned with creating a calm space for people to take part in a variety of therapeutic activities.
Across the rest of the space, the integration of colour was important to boost aesthetic pleasure and create diversity in the distinct areas. Greens have always had this association with nature but on their own they can become monotonous and by integrating pastel colours from across the spectrum allowed us to create more interest while not heightening some negative effects that could come across from certain colours.
To learn to look after a plant is to learn to look after yourself. This expression is important as the relationship between ourselves and nature is instrumental in improving and maintaining mental health. In reality, having more plants around helps to detoxify the air and remove it of impurities which in turn aids us in staying healthy. However, while many things translate to VR, removed from putting a plant in your room, this aspect of plants cannot be moved into the digital realm, at least for now. Therefore, we had to lean on plants in a different way to create benefits from them. As previously mentioned, we created aesthetic pleasure to boost the mood of the users through using different colours, however it was the integration of plants that allowed us to facilitate this.
Flowering plants allow the possibility of integrating colour and therefore introducing aesthetic pleasure in a way that suits the world we were creating. These plants are strategically spread across the island in order to introduce colour where needed, this breaking of the monotony creates interest and the different colours of the plants provide various psychological and physiological benefits to the user, helping to facilitate a better experience on the island. Finally, we explored the possibility of introducing plants which have health benefits through their scent such as lavender and jasmine, perhaps providing a placebo effect. However with the tropical style of the island, these didn’t allow for a cohesive whole in the design and so could potentially have been a negative distraction away from the therapy.
VR becomes your reality when the experience is as seamless and cohesive as possible. A VR environment may appear as a cartoonish world on a flat screen, when in the headset it becomes the world that you exist in. Your brain is good at adapting to and accepting the reality that is in front of you, so long as there’s no noticeable dissonance that draws you out of it. Therefore the ideal for the overall design of SHELTA was to create a cohesive whole. Consequently, the design direction was for stylised objects rather than striving for fidelity. This would mean a tree would be recognizable through its colour, silhouette and texture but not through its likeness to a tree in the physical world. This allowed us to push the experience as far as possible design-wise while maintaining a seamless experience that wouldn’t be troubled by any of the dissonance that can come from having some photoreal objects alongside less refined ones, a juxtaposition that can pull you out of the experience and break the illusion of virtual reality. Therefore the island was crafted in a way that texture, form and colour were valued over realism.
In my opinion architecture is never finished, the answer is never definitive; the final product is one answer of many. Therefore I’ve always found the process of iteration the best way to deduce that answer to the question. Consequently, I used this same idea to postulate what the mindfulness area would become. Initially, I started with the idea of framing. Mindfulness has this relationship of mind and body but there is a third dimension that has to facilitate this, the space. In order to only draw attention to the mind and body, the architecture must enable a state of focus. I therefore wanted to frame an almost still view, as though staring at a painting in order to collect the mind in one gaze. Using a horizontal plane to guide the view continuously forward until just at the point of where you sit, the roof is in view as to provide a cap to the focal point. This was the defining element of the space and although stylistically it changed across the many design iterations, the idea was always the datum to work from. From this singular object, I was then able to build the constituent factors that could allow the architecture to facilitate the mindfulness sessions.
In virtual reality there aren’t the same restrictions as in the physical world, yet referencing known architectural objects helps a person understand and use a space. Consequently, although the columns may not have to worry about transferring structural load, they have to worry about looking correct. The ideal behind the columns and pathway was this reference of dualism, the mind and the body being separate elements yet encased in the same being. As such, both objects depart and return from one another. Tree like columns rise from one and become two, distinctively capped by the woven beams above. The path however splits in the middle before returning to create a singular point to sit at. Where this path splits a hole punctures through the roof plane to create a moment of pause, around a central cherry blossom to bring in a final moment of aesthetic pleasure before conducting a mindfulness session. This brings light into the space and adds in a moment to pause at and reflect before or after the session. These objects have a rhythm to them that speaks to the surrounding nature, the sinusoidal look of the path and columns, communicates with the falling leaves and tidal waves that creates a repetitive focus to the space. This all helps guide the user and bring them into the rhythm of a singular mindfulness session and hint to the benefits of repeated use.
Encasing the space, the surrounding rocks create the vertical element of the framed view and encroach on the architecture by way of a zen garden that surrounds the path. Wood beams and columns surround the user to bring the natural elements into the “man made” architecture and as such acts as a mental balm. The choice of rich colour in timber was derived from analysing precedent but especially the work of HIL Architects where this cherry kissed wood provides a contrast to the lighter stone, and in our case sand. The layers of wood provide an interesting weave to look through but the large beams carry the view down the building. Frail edges on the wooden objects give a hint to the age of the object and allow the user to perceive that it has sat there for some time. To cap the roof plan sits a row of bamboo, of which only the bottom half is visible. The tops of the bamboos empty allowing a reduction in polygons which enables the experience to run as well as possible in the headset without being visible to the user from their vantage point.
These last details are ones of keen interest. The frayed edges add a great deal of character, and having seen the same beams without it, it is needed, yet it is also inauthentic. I think as we continue to develop architecture for the virtual world it will start to highlight what is actually important about our physical buildings more than we know, is a facsimile of wear and tear just as meaningful as the “real” thing? Learning to design for new constraints such as polygon count and hardware considerations rather than physical constraints has made this an enlightening project. It has demonstrated how transferable the approaches of designing for the built environment is to the digital, yet also has enable me to learn about what I value in physical architecture.