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Surviving Our Shrinking Apartments Means Living in a "Mixed Reality"

Will we need a mix of virtual and physical reality to make our tiny shitty apartments bearable?
May 23, 2014, 3:00pm
Image: Bernardo Schorr

Here's a grim thought: In the future, overcrowding in the world’s cities could force people to live in minuscule, 100-square-foot apartments with no windows, relying on a mix of digital and physical reality to make it bearable.

That's what creative technologist Bernardo Schorr calls a "utopian solution for a dystopian problem." Schorr, a student in Parsons' MFADT program in New York, recently created a project called Mixed Reality Living Situations, on display at an exhibition at Parsons this week.

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The video shows what it might look: A digital image of a pleasant interior design and view of the outdoors is overlaid on the four walls and simple surfaces in the tiny quarters, and changes several times a day. The idea is to feel immersed in multiple different living spaces within the same tiny room.

"Not entirely tangible and not entirely virtual, but a mixed reality," Schorr explained in an email. "The content from the walls are a mixture of photography, vector art, video and computer graphics … to try to form a unique identity for a space that must feel real and comfortable, yet not be a plain mimicry of another existing environment."

It's a totally feasible, if not quite economically viable, option for crammed future urban living. But no one wants it to come to this; the real point of the project is to shine a light on the issue of overcrowding itself, said Schorr.

"The actual land area of cities will not get much bigger, while populations will continue a steady growth," he wrote. "The math is simple: there will be less space available for each of us. As time passes, real estate will become rarer and more expensive, forcing new adaptations from us along the way."

Image: Bernardo Schorr

Shrinking living spaces led to "vertical growth in Manhattan, the subdivided apartments in Paris and the capsule hotels in Tokyo," he wrote. The project is both a solution for a future where we have to cope with such confinement, and an opportunity to reflect on the direction we're heading toward: "A future in which having any windows would be a luxury."

In a way, it's not so unlike the recent insane and fantastic idea to strap an Oculus Rift on cooped up chickens that displays a virtual world that makes it appear as if they're living on an open sprawling farm, running free. It's not actually “free range,” but maybe it's better than the alternative?

The chicken experiment is called "Second Livestock," obviously a play on Second Life, which promised us an alternative life lived in the digiverse where we could be and do the kinds of things we can't in reality.

I'm still skeptical of that kind of fully immersive VR (though I have to admit the latest Oculus Rift HD prototype is pretty sick), which is why mixed reality projects are interesting. We're a long way off from living an improved version of life in the virtual metaverse, but using digital technology to enhance and augment the physical world is something we're already dabbling in, and doesn't require the need to wear a cumbersome headset all day.

Schorr's project isn't so different from hanging big mirrors to make a small apartment look bigger, or art depicting nature on a windowless wall.