Recently, I watched the movie ‘Ready Player One’ which speaks to both my movie buff side and my inner video game nerd. Set in the not so distant future, life is spent between “normal” daily life and a virtual world. I was intrigued by their representation of architecture in this setting, where people are more concerned with their virtual lives than reality.

Our journey starts in the hero’s bedroom, as he leaves the house in the morning. The house is a typical trailer that you would find in a trailer park with a slight twist. It’s stacked on top of multiple trailers about 100 feet in the air. As the camera pans out, we see the whole landscape with several trailer towers, precariously stacked on top of each other. Clearly, in this world where reality comes in a distant second to the virtual world, people have less interest in their surroundings. Also, the people funnel all available income into gear that makes their virtual lives better, sacrificing other creature comforts. This poses a challenge for architects. How do you address changes in society? Do you create virtual architecture or focus on adapting current architecture to meet needs that arise from the virtual culture?

In some ways, the movie does address this question. If you have ever put on a virtual reality headset you quickly learn that reality still has an impact. The impact can be quite literal, as there’s the possibility of running into a wall or furnishings. In the movie, this was resolved by standing on a multi-directional treadmill before donning your VR headset. The treadmill shifts direction when as the person does, allowing a full range of motion, without obstacles. This solves the walking into a wall issue. In addition to the treadmill, there is a harness that keeps you from falling.

So how does architecture adapt to societal changes and values, like this alternate reality? Historically speaking, it is one of the things architecture does very well. Just think about how homes here have evolved with changes such as indoor plumbing. Or how architecture responds to differing climates to make occupants as comfortable as possible. Architects spend a great deal of time thinking about and improving the human condition.

Crenellations like this were once necessary in architecture for fortification and protection. Photo by Scott Bowen.

With the growing popularity of virtual reality, it will be interesting to see if the future develops as depicted in the movie. Would the architecture follow a similar trend? Will people spend less money on tangible items, including architecture? If so, how do we respond to accommodate the movement of people in a virtual world?