Space Popular creates virtual Zoom backgrounds to enhance human connection

We invited virtual architecture champions Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg of Space Popular to create three video call background designs for us, and to discuss the importance of spatial experiences in the digital world 

With many countries still under some level of lockdown, many of us continue to work from home. Video calls have become a daily staple, a helpful tool to ensure communications remain strong, and life and business can move forward. As uses of such virtual reality tools are ever more commonplace, architects have began to investigate the role of buildings and three-dimentional space within this new ‘normal' – take, for example, the recently launched LFA: Digital 2020, London's first ever architecture festival to take place through our screens. 

London-based architects Space Popular, headed by Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg, have been exploring the intersections of the physical and digital world in their field for a while now; their RIBA exhibition, Freestyle, was forced to close its physical display when London went into lockdown a couple of months ago, but an online show has now replaced it, continuing to discuss the relationships, contradictions, benefits and challenges that emerge with this new framework. 

Taking this important dialogue one step further, we invited Lesmes and Hellberg to create for us their own version of what a virtual call's spatial background is. Virtual reality, the duo says, works in the same way the telephone does, by creating human connections when physical contact is not possible – a critical element for mental health. And as video involves not just voice, but also body language and the scenery around the human body, space contributes, even if in a smaller part, to this conversation. 

Their response? Three imaginative environments that can ‘hopefully create a little moment of distraction and satisfaction'. Living through meetings with little direct human interaction and stimulation can be exhausting, so the pair set off to create a context to offer ‘a place for the eye to rest'.

‘As many of us have been indoors for several months, we long not only to be outside and to meet other people, but also for different sensations,' they explain. ‘Simple things like feeling rain falling on your forehead, grass brushing your legs or even something simple like feeling a little cold! The three scenes we created to be used as virtual background for video calls, or simply to stare at, depict the contradicting nature of our desires and our reality. At the same time it celebrates the internet and its associated devices, which, in these days of physical isolation, means we are not so far apart after all.'

Architects understand the ‘subtle effects that the space around us has in our sense of comfort and social behaviour', so it would be essential for them, who are especially trained to design spatial experiences, to become involved in the way the city is augmented through virtual reality, continues the team. 

However, there are still key differences between physical architecture and buildings, and digital designs, such as these video call spaces. ‘Every project we [as architects] work on, even if its final outcome is purely physical, is either fully or partially created and even imagined inside a virtual space,' point out Lesmes and Hellberg. ‘These three scenes are no different in that sense. The main difference however is that they are designed to be purely entertaining, where most of our projects aim to draw attention to a larger issue or stay in the background of everyday life.'

Virtual background, created for Wallpaper* by Space Popular

(Image credit: TBC)

Virtual background, created for Wallpaper* by Space Popular

(Image credit: TBC)


Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).