Digital Space: No Goggles Required
Tom Milavec in Digital Experience, Digital design, digital space, virtual reality

Keiichi Matsuda. Image courtesy of Meet the Media Guru, via Flickr.

A lot of people (like me) used to think that digital space would be like the brain-frying virtual reality described in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. That novel birthed the pop-culture idea of plugging your consciousness into a digital world and watching the physical realm evaporate. Gibson calls it a “consensual hallucination.” And even thought his vision is 30 years old, it’s as awesome now as it was then.

But we’re still waiting for that vision to morph into reality. We’re still waiting for the crazy, techno-topia, cyber dreamscape we were promised. Today, massive leaps in virtual reality technology are pushing us closer, but we’re still a ways from having that kind of immersive environment as the basic framework for everyday digital space. Plus, there’s something about putting on a set of goggles that seems a little clumsy. So there’s that.

But we’ve learned something while we’ve been waiting for the “consensual hallucination.” We’ve realized that there are some other way cool possibilities for digital space. Digital experience designers, like me, have been exploring the idea of digital space as content baked into a physical environment, and we’re pretty stoked about the possibilities.

Why? Because the digital/physical crossroads is a super wide-open frontier. We’re still figuring out the necessary frameworks, contact points, limitations and experiences that can result. We’re investigating how digital content can not only enhance a space, but also define it. And we’re exploring different types of digital content—branding content, social content, news and informational content, abstract content—and looking at the ways each plays out in a physical environment.

We’re also jamming on a basic question: How do you use digital tools in a physical space to tell an authentic story? Using digital to create eye candy is one thing. Using it to deliver narratives and compelling experiences is another.

We’re exploring answers to that question in our projects. And we’re finding those answers in everything from digital totems that display real-time social media content to screens that show branded digital video. But we’re also looking ahead to what’s next in digital space. What happens when the screens go away? What happens when the boundaries between digital and physical vanish and you can have a seamless digital experience?

That frontier is something that plenty of people are exploring already, and it’s something that I’m totally diggin’. For one thing, the content-aware rooms featured in Minority Report are not as far-fetched or far away as you might imagine. Early forms of spatial computing technology—which allows you to manipulate digital content in three-dimensional space and move it across platforms—are already on the market. A lot of that technology is still screen-based. But that’ll change. As that technology evolves and becomes more widely adopted, the possibilities for content-embedded environments will only explode, especially when it comes to how people interact with and share content. We’ll see more collaborative environments, more interactive capabilities and more ways to engage people.

If you think content-aware rooms are trippy, check out the craziness going on with Keiichi Matsuda at Keiichi is a trained architect who now creates speculative films about augmented reality, which is the overlay of digital information and content onto the physical world. So it goes way beyond virtual reality. If you’re one of the millions of people who downloaded Pokémon GO, you’re already familiar with a version of augmented reality. But what Keiichi is exploring is like Pokémon GO on steroids, and it’s not just for gaming. It’s for all aspects of everyday life.

Magic Leap has a slightly different vision. They’re calling it mixed reality. And they’re prototyping the hardware to make it happen. The people at Magic Leap are super secretive, but so far they’ve shared images of a thin photonics chip that looks a lot like a lens for a pair of glasses. The lens creates a digital light-field signal that get beamed onto your retina (I know that sounds way scary, but it’s actually really safe) and tricks the brain into seeing virtual objects mixed into and responsive to the physical world.

If you look at all of the possibilities on the horizon, it seems like we’re on the verge of something ginormous. We’re near a turning point that’ll reshape not just how we view digital space, but how we see and interact with all space. So forget about any distinction between digital space and non-digital space. All physical space will be a framework, with the digital world tied into it.

For people who shape the built environment, the ripple effects of this new reality will be massive. And the details of how this hybridized world will shape experiences and behaviors is still anyone’s guess. But what we’re looking at is a whole new way of interacting with the world around us. How can you not get stoked about that?

Tom Milavec is a digital experience strategy leader in Gensler’s southeast region. Based in Washington, D.C., he builds teams that express digital experiences within physical spaces. Contact him at, or follow his Instagram: @tmilavec.
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