Güvenç Özel Creates a Robotic Installation Controlled by Virtual Reality

Architect Güvenç Özel creates a link between human and robot through a robotic installation controlled by Virtual Reality.
Susan Fourtané
Güvenç Özel

Architect, technologist, and researcher Güvenç Özel uses Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR), sensor technology, 3D-printing, and other emerging technologies in his architectural practice. The result is at the intersection of art, architecture, technology, virtual studies, media, and research on urban culture.

"I think that 21st Century architecture is going to have a different set of priorities. I don't think that it will be about using technology to build more complicated buildings, but it will be about integrating technology to create more intelligent environments." 

Originally from Turkey, Güvenç Özel lives and works in Los Angeles, California.

He was a keynote speaker at Turkey Innovation Week in Istanbul where Cypher -- his most recent cyberphysical sculptural installation-- was exhibited and conference attendees had the chance to interact with it. 

We met Güvenç Özel for an interview after his presentation to learn more about how architecture, technology, and art merge to give birth to a 21st Century architecture where the integration of technology means the creation of more intelligent environments. 

"I think most of my research is actually focusing on the intersection of the physical and the virtual world, and how we can develop rules or sensibilities, and design parameters for human occupation in the virtual world," Güvenç Özel explains.

"I think a lot of the problem is that the current technology of Virtual Reality is obviously not very accommodating to human experience for an extended period of time." 

"You can have a gaming experience, or you can have some kind of interactive experience for a certain period of time, but your physiology is not built to experience immersive virtual content for that extended period of time. Because our eyes in terms of evolution have developed to create depth sensing, contrast ratios, and what have you based on the lighting conditions of the physical world," he tells us. 

For Özel, the virtual world is a completely different set of visualization that doesn't have that kind of depth; it simulates the depth on a two dimensional screen.

"We're not developing the VR technology. We're developing content for it. That's not something that we can control. But we can generate content that is in a way enhancing certain elements of human experience and suppressing other qualities that are, I would say, not so great about VR, in order to create experiences that are much more comfortable for people," he says. 

What Özel finds very exciting about Virtual Reality is that it no longer conforms to the limitations of the physical word. "You can have animated objects, you can teleport people, you can change scale. All the things are the fundamental mainstays of architecture that defined architecture for centuries, but now you can develop a new set of rules for architecture," he says.

"And to me, as an architect, that's very exciting, because it really allows you to think literally outside the box and also requires you to overcome centuries of ideas that have developed about what is considered to be rules of designing spaces architecturally. So, you have to rethink them in a way, but human experience is always based in the physical world first."

According to Özel, even when you are starting in VR you cannot completely ignore the physical world. He says that you have to create a point of immersion first, that simulates the physical world as accurately as possible.

cypher robot
Cypher robot / Image source: Güvenç Özel

"And then you can start changing it, then you can start altering it, then you can start injecting the new rules, but you have to convince your audience first that this a legible experience. And the only way to do that is first to imitate, in a way, the realities of the physical world in a virtual environment," he says.

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Interesting Engineering's Tolga Uslu was curious about knowing if Güvenç Özel adds soul and emotion to the architecture when he is working on a project as an architect. He cites the buildings in Dubai, some of which may seem to be just promoting the latest technology in construction as if that would be the only feature rather than paying attention to give the building its own soul, its own emotions.

"I think the reason why it becomes a more engaging relationship between humans and buildings is when the building actually develops a personality, says Özel.

Özel says that science-fiction has always been a great interest that has influenced his work. "J.G Ballard, the science-fiction writer, has a very interesting short story called The Vermilion Sands, and in that story he talks about a shape shifting house with Artificial Intelligence," he says.

"And according to the story, there's a client, and a real estate agent, and the real estate agent is giving a tour of this house. But this house is behaving strangely, and they realize that it is because it was traumatized by some of the events that happened when the previous owner of the house was occupying the house."

"And that to me was a very interesting, imaginative paradigm because we always in a way, despite the fact that inanimate objects around us play a huge role in our social lives, we always focus on human-to-human relationships and how that influences our lives. But I think through the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence, that reality is going to transform radically," he says. 

In the context he is talking about, Özel believes that there is a certain kind of autonomy and intelligence in the object, that is already programmed to iterate, to change its behavior according to environmental context. "That actually objects with intelligence around us are literally going to be affected by the social context that they exist in."

For Özel, what is exciting about an interactive architecture or a robotic architecture is that architecture no longer becomes a backdrop to activity, but it becomes an active participant in that activity.

"So, to me, the notion of a soul becomes much more prominent in a situation like that, because then something that moves has character, right? Something that participates in an activity starts developing personality through those activities, and to me that's a much more, I would say, enhanced version and a much less abstract version of a soul, so to say. Then, it's defined by its actions in the real world," he says. 

"If in architecture, if a building has an ability to transform itself based on environmental parameters then it becomes an active participant in the formation of those parameters. And it becomes almost like a character in a story, and I find that to be a very interesting potential. I think that's a really fascinating paradigm," Özel says.

Obviously, at some point we are going to have autonomous intelligence in our lives and that is going to trigger a very interesting social relationship between humans and objects.

"I find, in that context, Japanese culture to be really fascinating," Özel says. "I think the reason why the Japanese are not having such a hard time with robotics, as other cultures, is because they believe that inanimate objects have souls. So, for them to understand or be convinced by the autonomy of an object other than a human, is easy. They don't have the complexity of moral problems as Western culture has about AI," he says.

Because everybody in the West is always talking about how there is going to be a robot apocalypse, what the ethical implications of AI are, and if it is going to be a threat to humans.

But for the Japanese, they already are part of a social relationship with beings that have intelligence. They don't have that social barrier to accept Artificial Intelligence. And I find that to be a very interesting cultural context to consider in the context of this conversation," Özel says.

"I think that 21st Century architecture is going to have a different set of priorities. I don't think that it'll be about using technology to build more complicated buildings, but it'll be about integrating technology to create more intelligent environments," he says.

Cypher: A shape-shifting sculpture controlled by sensors and Virtual Reality 

Güvenç Özel and Cypher at Turkey Innovation Week in Istanbul / Photo: Tolga Uslu 

Cypher is a cyberphysical sculptural installation created and developed by Ozel Office that aims to create a vivid and unique interactive experience through robotics, Virtual Reality, machine learning, and sensor interaction.

Cypher was exhibited at Turkey Innovation Week as part of a program highlighting Turkish innovation and innovators who reached international success and recognition thanks to their creative and inspiring work. 

cypher, controlling the robot
Interacting with Cypher through Virtual Reality: Connected to Cypher / Photo: Tolga Uslu 

Cypher combines an interactive soft robotic body with a Virtual Reality interface.

Through this combination, Cypher establishes a bridge between the physical and digital worlds, collapsing them into the same experiential plane by synchronizing a Virtual Reality simulation with human-robot interaction. 

The multiple-technologies behind Cypher

cypher and human
Cypher / Image source: Güvenç Özel

Through an infrared sensor array and a LIDAR (similar to technologies used in autonomous vehicles), the shape-shifting sculpture has the ability to detect the proximity of the audience and change its shape accordingly.

The beautifully designed Virtual Reality (VR) headset --which is more like a helmet--tethered to the sculpture teleports the user to its interior. It is then when the user experiences a shift from object to space.

Already within the VR realm, the user has the ability to change the shape of the robot through natural hand gestures. As the user changes the shape of the VR simulation, the robot moves in real-time, aligning the physical and digital transformations.

According to Ozel Office, the relationship between VR and robotics is further negotiated through machine learning algorithms, allowing the sculpture to develop natural motions by learning how to predict the way in which users are going to interact with it.

The firm says that the AI component allows for the sculpture to get more intelligent the more it is exhibited, using the number of interactions it has with the audience to build a memory archive and cumulatively shape its motion and behavior through time.

Through the synthesis of these multiple technologies, the sculpture challenges the human notions of what is real versus what is virtual. The experience allows the user to travel between a multitude of realities simultaneously.

The combination of multiple technological systems working seamlessly is what allows Cypher to exist simultaneously in the digital and the physical worlds. Cypher responds to changes in its environment both as simulation and as a material entity.

According to Özel, by merging the worlds of Virtual Reality and robotics, Cypher has the ability to translate concepts and experiences that have traditionally been seen as opposite domains: Architecture vs. sculpture, object vs. space, digital vs. physical, real vs. virtual, visual vs. tactile, machine vs. organism. 

NASA 3D-printed habitat on Mars

Ozel Office, NASA habitat on Mars project
3D-printed habitat on Mars by Ozel Office: The project was awarded one of the top prizes at NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitats Competition / Image source: Güvenç Özel

The question of how the future buildings on Mars are going to look like is one that has intrigued humans for many years. 

Güvenç Özel and his team created a 3D-printed habitat in collaboration with experts from the UCLA Department of Engineering and Material Science. The project entered the NASA and AmericaMakes 3D-Printed Habitat competition challenge, and received the Runner Up Prize in more than 160 international entries. 

"That project was an open competition for architects. Obviously, NASA has staff space architects, but they wanted to get different perspectives from people in the field. And the way that we approached that project was to create a very technically savvy production workflow for robotic fabrication where we can use indigenous materials on Mars to produce a 3D-printing scheme that is high-performance," he explains.

For the competition, NASA required the participants to design a 100 m2 habitat comfortable enough to accommodate living and research facilities as well as life support equipment for four astronauts

To build the habitat, the team proposed to 3D-print high performance composite shells through the combination of locally harvested basalt and carbon with fast curing polymer resins, a 3D printing version of how high-performance boats, planes, satellites, and spaceships are built.

"Because a lot of the existing propositions for 3D in Mars are very rudimentary in the sense that they just want to take the sand and expose it to high-level of heat and radiation, and they melt it layer by layer which is the typical type of 3D printing process," he says.

"We also decided to create a provocative design for the actual thing itself, because our logic was that if four astronauts go to Mars in 20 years, it'll be watched by everybody in the world, it'll become a reality show. They're going to be celebrities, everybody is going to be curious about how they're living."  

Güvenç Özel: Bringing buildings to life

Güvenç Özel
Architect, technologist, and researcher Güvenç Özel / Image source:: Güvenç Özel

Güvenç Özel is an architect, technologist, researcher, and a lead faculty member and Program Advisor of IDEAS, a multidisciplinary research and development platform in UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design, and the principal of Ozel Office, an interdisciplinary design practice located in Los Angeles, California.  

Özel studied architecture, sculpture, and philosophy in Bennington College. In addition, he holds a Masters of Architecture degree from Yale University, where he graduated with multiple awards.

Prior to establishing his own practice and research, he worked in the architecture offices of Rafael Vinoly, Jürgen Mayer H., and Frank Gehry, among others. His projects and experimental installations have been exhibited in museums and galleries in the United States and Europe such as Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and The Saatchi Gallery in London.

Özel formerly taught at Yale University, Woodbury University, and the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. His recent design and research on 3D-printing was awarded one of the top prizes at NASA’s 3D Printed Habitats Competition.

At UCLA IDEAS, besides teaching his own masters design studio, he continues his research on 3D-printing, computation, virtual reality, robotics, interactive spaces, and sensing interfaces with support from leading companies such as Autodesk, Microsoft, and Oculus.

Architecture in the 21st Century

"I think that 21st Century architecture is going to have a different set of priorities. I don't think that it will be about using technology to build more complicated buildings, but it will be about integrating technology to create more intelligent environments." 

Towards the end, Güvenç Özel offers advice to future architects, something to stimulate their young minds: 

"I would say that they should continue playing video games. I think that understanding video games is the door into understanding Artificial Intelligence, and I think simulation; understanding and getting used to existing immersive environments that are simulations is an incredible important thing that somebody has to conceptually wrap their heads around."

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