Last Updated on July 25, 2017

In recent years, the streams of art and technology have been moving ever closer together. The rules that define what it means to make art and how technology can be utilized have already begun to intersect. This cross between the two is giving rise to new forms of art that incorporate technology and, in particular, virtual reality.

Virtual reality is a computer generated simulation that allows you to see alternate 3D images through a headset, and in the last two years, it has exploded in the film and gaming industry. The question now is whether virtual reality will similarly enter the art world. Is virtual reality an appropriate medium through which to view artistic works? Are there artists utilizing virtual reality in meaningful ways? Could VR art take hold of the art world, forever altering the way art is consumed, and even sold?

The art world has traditionally been skeptical of new arrivals into its established frameworks. Technology, and in this case virtual reality, is changing the game for art in terms of how to view it, and how to produce it. The role of virtual reality is to plunge the viewer into a specific space – and so become entirely immersed within the artistic experience, virtually. The foundation of this experience lies with the virtual reality headset, the Oculus Rift . Released to the public in March 2016, the Rift is truly a dream of science fiction come true with its 110-degree field of view and inbuilt speakers which effectively build a completely unique realm for the user. There is also a lower-tech, cheaper version of the Rift; the Google Cardboard. By assembling the cardboard pieces, the lenses intertwine two images at different angles to create an illusion of space. These developments have inspired many to imagine art beyond their own individual point of view.

Museums and Galleries Use VR Art for Special Exhibitions and Sales

Through the Oculus Rift, there are many different possibilities that arise, which many galleries and artists have taken advantage of. One of the most recent approaches has been the use of virtual reality apps. The Renwick Gallery, an institution part of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., held an exhibit from 2015-16 that took place on the screens of viewers’ mobile devices.

Artists are increasingly turning to virtual tools in their practice.

The museum launched an immersive 360-degree art virtual reality app called “Renwick Gallery WONDER 360”—which allowed the viewer to explore in 3D its “WONDER” exhibit, involving nine contemporary artists. These artists —Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin and Leo Villareal— created site-specific, gallery-sized installations from a series of unexpected materials. WONDER 360 was the gallery’s first major exhibit utilizing virtual reality, and was unlike a real gallery in that it allowed the holder to view and experience the art anywhere in the world. This virtual reality tour is, in that way, a whole new approach to sharing art with the public.

Recently, Orangenius, an art startup serving both artists and galleries with online business and networking tools, launched its own virtual reality component to provide the same kind of immersive view into art institutions and galleries [Note: Orangenius is the parent company of Artrepreneur]. This service, which is still in its preliminary stages, creates opportunities for online participants to virtually walk through exhibitions and view works of art for sale, amounting to an indispensable marketing and sales tool for participating galleries.

Artists Quickly Gaining Momentum Within the Art VR World

Virtual reality goes beyond just the viewing aspect of it. The “immersion” component of using art VR doesn’t leave anything out of the experience in its ability to allow to user to see, hear and manipulate their virtual environment. Not only galleries, but artists themselves have begun to embrace VR as a medium, virtually sculpting and painting with tools that are completely unrelated to their intended result. With the use of Rift, motion sensors and specially designed interfaces, art has transcended the physical world. One of these sensors is the Tilt Brush, a device that can be best described as a 3D virtual paintbrush. Using Rift as the platform, the Brush allows the artist to paint freely on virtual canvases, allowing for an open and versatile space.

One artist who is effectively employing the Tilt Brush is virtual painter Elizabeth Edwards. Until recently, Edwards worked in video games as a 3D character artist, and then decided to pursue a freelance career in VR art. “When VR became a thing, it was natural to want to get my hands on it and see what I could do,” Edwards remarks. Despite having always drawn, painted and sculpted, she feels that the appealing aspect of VR lies in its tactile nature. It may be digital, but it also uses the artists’ hands – and as a result, all barriers between the artist and the art are removed.

“It’s difficult to express how much more natural working in 3D is with a headset and motion controllers,” Edwards says. “The artwork isn’t constrained to two dimensions on a flat screen – things like depth become intuitive because virtual objects are seen in the same way as objects in the real world.” For Edwards, and many artists like her working in VR art, the virtual plane is more flexible and present. On the subject of VR in the art world, Edwards is clear in her belief of its positive influence on the future of art and artists: “VR art is such a wonderful medium, and only in its infancy. I’m certain it has a bright future, and no doubt artists are going to make wonderful things we can’t even conceive yet.” VR allows for limitless possibilities in its process through the art world, and though its future is unpredictable, Edwards is correct in that VR art continues to evolve.

VR has come a long way, starting off in a select few places around the world where the effects could only be viewed through a display screen, to a full surround-sound immersion via a helmet. Despite what can be seen as an overall positive reaction to the introduction and development of VR, its reception has not been– and may never be– completely accepted.

Artrepreneur spoke with virtual and augmented reality artist Tamiko Thiel about VR’s place in the art world. Thiel has been working with VR art since 1994, when she worked on the project Starbright World. The project’s role was to develop a 3D virtual world in which seriously ill children in hospitals across the U.S. could meet via a network to interact with one another. Even though this was before VR’s ascension into the general public’s consciousness, users interacted via a screen monitor in a virtual 3D world—just in a different context from today’s VR.

Pioneering artists like Tamiko Thiel explore new dimensions within their augmented reality works.

VR has always been a way for users to immerse themselves and interact with their digital surroundings that mimic, and exceed, real life. In discussing the progression of VR art in the art world, Thiel states that “doing artwork in VR requires a different mentality,” one that isn’t present with traditional 2D art. The viewer has to accept the fact that they have to be guided through the VR art space. In other words, when the user is either taking a virtual tour or making art, they do not have complete freedom and liberty to move around at will. “What I find interesting,” says Thiel, “is creating a virtual world where the viewer has both the freedom and the problem of exploring it.” This aspect of VR art is what many galleries and artists don’t want—they tend to look for the carefully scripted, traditional way of viewing art. Art is, essentially, still seen as a single image, where there is control of what people can see in a 2D plane. But VR, as Thiel states, “provides an experience, one that is happening in both time and space.” As a result, some may feel uncomfortable or threatened, and unsure how to deal with VR in the art world.

Virtual reality offers significant opportunities for artists and galleries and those viewing art now and, most probably, in the future. It’s a limitless medium, one that attempts to parallel life itself. VR has full potential in this aspect, but it also stands a good chance of being a hit-or-miss form of art: a moving target. Thiel made a point by stating, “What’s always killed (VR) until now is its difficulty to create content.” When working with VR, there’s no denying that it’s more challenging to build and paint in 3D to create an image, what with required hardware like Rift and controllers like Tilt. But, despite its difficulty to embrace and maneuver, VR art could be the barely explored 3D experience that the art world has been missing.

Have you experienced VR art exhibitions? Let us know in the comments!

Naomi Stock
Naomi Stock

Naomi is an intern at Orangenius. She is attending Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she is primarily interested in art history and Japanese.