Castles in the Air: How Digitally Enhanced Spaces Connect Us to the Promise of the Past

Bringing ancient traditions to our modern world

Humanity has evolved in close connection to the spaces and landscapes we inhabit. The concept of "place" is an essential part of human experience. It's something our ancestors instinctively understood but which, in a screen-based world, is too easily forgotten.  

Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of a swashbuckling Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's globe-conquering series popularized the idea of a "mind palace." For a time, the observe-and-recollect technique Holmes employed to sleuth and solve mysteries was thrown around in every self-help book and test prep course as a revolutionary new concept without much appreciation for the fact that, in reality, the memory palace, as it is also called, emerged from a foundational principle for pre-literate societies.

Memory palace refers to a technique whereby complex data are recalled by associating them with familiar physical spaces navigated in the imagination. Ancient Greek poet Simonides used it to recount a dinner party disaster, and medieval monks employed it to recall long texts. Similarly, an even earlier (and much more effective) process by which information attached to actual physical geography in the form of a narrative enabled ancient Aboriginal cultures to pass down knowledge and lore for centuries. In our modern age, brands have co-opted the techniques to create content and experiences that evoke human fascination and emotion, thereby generating awareness and recall for an array of products and services. 

These days, with Mark Zuckerberg's timely rebrand of digital properties under the Meta umbrella, the creative industry is propelling itself into the proverbial rabbit hole of the metaverse. Creative design companies are pivoting their entire business models to create the immersive environment that will blend our physical and digital worlds into a seamless human experience where virtual twins mimic real life.

Arguably, the early iterations of the digital world were just a stepping stone to this, based on some universal truths. People want to feel connected and valued. They want to have a voice and be recognized. These are all benefits we derive from physical connection and community, and have sought out more recently through digital communication platforms. With the help of new digital realities, we're already beginning to imagine spaces that unlock our potential for learning, creativity and growth in truly extraordinary ways.

To me, screen-based connection has always been the poor cousin to the emotional impact of physical experience. The power of physical spaces to ignite cognitive effects is not earth-shattering. More than 60 years ago, Disneyland transported park goers into the fantasies of its animated films, translating stories into real-life experiences with rides like Peter Pan's Flight and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Decades later, that same allure of experience has given way to so-called Instagram museums popping up around the globe. Through masterful storytelling in visually appealing physical form, The Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles, The Van Gogh Experience that originated in The Netherlands and Meow Wolf in New Mexico paved the way for spatial creations that immerse people in a story, leaving them with memorable, awe-inspiring (and photo-worthy) experiences that they share IRL with others. 

My partners and I founded our agency, Struck, 25 years ago based on the belief that it is experiences, not information, that have the power to transform minds and change culture. In the physical worlds we design, light, materials and space come together in ways that are powerfully emotionally resonant. Through the creation of retail, workplace and public environments over the years, we've learned how to combine the palette which the physical world offers to elicit transformational responses, drive behavioral change and deliver measurable positive impact for people and organizations.

The advent of the metaverse and much more effective, immersive augmented reality technologies promises to expand this palette in extraordinary ways. I’m excited to see how it all unfolds. Most observers have focused on the way AR and VR will enable them to collaborate with others in more immersive ways. While I agree that's a huge attraction, it's the ability to transform the spaces themselves that thrills me the most. This is where the ancient traditions of the mind palace and the Aboriginal process of storytelling through nature meet the power of technology. 

It's our whole bodies and minds, not just our eyes or fingertips, that matter after all.

In the 300,000 years or so that humans roamed the Earth, the decoupling of our intellectual and emotional lives from our physical spaces represents just a tiny sliver of our time and presence here. We are on the precipice, I think, of rediscovering the power of something lodged deep within us: the insight that our minds are not limited by the confines of our bodies, but can expand to occupy whole worlds. 

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