VR Headsets Playing With Art

Amelia Rowland

Tech websites have been following the development of Virtual Reality (VR) headsets steadfastly since 2012, when Oculus Rift launched a revolutionary campaign through Kickstarter.  As companies like HTC, Samsung and Playstation (to name a few in what is becoming a crowded market) have made VR more accessible, the headsets are now compatible with mobile devices including iPhones, Androids and gaming systems. Welcome to the mainstream, VR. 

Purchasing a VR headset is a surprisingly annoying task and is dependent on a variety of factors from cost (£3.29- £689) to what kind of content you’d like to be watching or playing. Google Cardboard starts at the least technological and more skint end of the spectrum, as they require only downloading their app onto your smartphone. Then by donning a very suave pair of cardboard goggles you are given a three dimensional experience. Google Cardboard is completely reliant upon the content downloaded from apps and your own mobile phone... and if you’re able to construct them yourself at home.

It took me about half hour to make up my pair of Google Cardboard - because I refused to read a manual. It looked as simple as colour by numbers but unfortunately it was not. My eyesight may never be the same. Like all good VR instruction manuals, you’re also carefully reminded to please not use this app while driving, walking or in any way that distracts you from real-world situations. Previous experiences in 3D cinema and television has taught me that this kind of eye trickery doesn’t sit well with my constitution. So naturally, I wanted to try these bad boys out.

Voila!

To fully discover the realm of VR I downloaded the Google Cardboard app, Discovery Channel VR app, Immersivly VR Art Gallery and Goosebumps Night of Scares. For research, of course. The Google Cardboard app is a light introduction to the VR experience showing you peaceful landscapes, cute foxes staring at you, and a relaxing whale watching scene. Ahh, how’s the serenity? But how successfully does the virtual reality experience carry over to the art world? 


The Immersivly VR Art Gallery app is almost the complete opposite of the Google Cardboard app. To start your journey, you begin in the De Re Gallery, Los Angeles. With its white walls and grey floors, it is a neutral commercial gallery space but there's a variety of paintings lining it's walls, among them a Van Gogh. Then you stare at a work of art for a few seconds, you select it and are glided to the painting. Navigating the gallery gets tricky as it's a clumsy process, and you need an excellent ear (it’s narrated by the artist/creator Gretchen Andrews). This is not the only commercial gallery that has adopted this new technology to promote artists, and also create a ‘fun’ art experience for viewers. The Oculus app ‘VR Art Gallery’ looks like it could be the best version of VR gone mad (so far). Not being able to try it out, I’ve relied upon their own descriptions of the app. The developers have used artworks by Damir Balic from a solo exhibition in Sarajevo, and transported them to a variety of new locations. This includes outer space, so keep your eyes peeled for the Millenium Falcon. Or perhaps you’d like to view these caricatures in a post-apocalyptic city? That's possible too! Here VR apps give budding artists a new platform for self-promotion, but am I the only one left going Damir who? And, why?

On a more professional scale, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, used Google Cardboard to enhance their recent event 'Slithering Screens'. This saw 10 VR works shown (or immersed, have we created a relevant verb for it yet?) for paying visitors. These films were originally shown at Sundance 2016 as they celebrated a decade of the New Frontier program - a program that features filmmakers and artists that: 

EXPLORE THE OPPORTUNITIES WITHIN THE NEWEST TECHNOLOGIES TO PUSH THE EDGES OF STORY CONCEPTION AND CRAFT, AND TO INVITE THE AUDIENCE TO EXPERIENCE STORIES AS NEVER BEFORE.

Those who attended the screenings at MOMA also received exclusive customised Google Cardboard goggles designed by artist and rapper Yung Jake. The VR goggles in this case aren’t just the medium to view art, they now become a work of art and design in themselves. I’m 100% jealous as they look slicker than I'll ever be. I am inspired now though to start pimping out my own pair. Pass me my diamantés!

What next for VR headsets and their use in art? Artsy is proclaiming it as the ‘most powerful medium of our time’ however I don’t see it as threatening the tangible world of painting, drawing, sculpture and film as we know it. Instead, I think we should be focusing on how VR can be used as a new form of archiving exhibitions and how VR content can allow new visitors into art galleries in an exciting, personal way. When I was an over-eager youth I remember a relative bringing me back from their European holiday a computer game called Le Louvre: The Virtual Visit. Sitting in the study in the Australian summer, I would put the CD-ROM into the crusty, slow old Mac and took this ‘interactive tour’ of the Louvre, seeing all of their famous works hung up on their walls. You’ve got no idea how excited I was, seeing inside such an iconic gallery and perving on the artworks that we studied in class.

These are the kind of possibilities that VR could achieve: recreating exhibitions and permanent collections in a more interactive way than ever before.