Abstract reality: Why VR can learn from fine art

Virtual reality isn't going to be about just games, games, games
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If someone tries to tell you that computer games aren't art, then you might want to introduce them to Iain Nicholls. A student of painting at the Royal College of Art in the early 90s, Nichols has moved from one form of entertainment to the other with his skills as a creator of landscapes slipping between the actual and the virtual.

Now back in the gallery, he's switched the paint brush for the mouse and made VR the canvas with his Oculus Rift-powered installation at London's Herrick Gallery known as Veil.

Saying what can it do for galleries and this and that is the wrong way of thinking about VR. It's going to do its own thing

More than some artist trying to get noticed with an on-trend, new medium, Nicholls's professional experience in both camps allows Veil to pose an unbiased and interesting question of one of the most talked about wearable technologies of the day - what can art get out of VR or, as it turns out, what is it that VR might actually learn from fine art?

Conceived and constructed with the help of programmer Tom Szirtes – a colleague from his Sega days and now director at digital creative agency Mbryonic – Veil is what Nicholls confesses is something of a light-hearted experience.

Blending art and VR

In front of the viewer is a plinth upon which is sat a rough cut cardboard model of a house. Put on the headset and that's exactly what you see, only in digital. You're in the same space with the same gallery around you, just as you left it in the actual world, replaced faithfully in computer-gen thanks, in part, to the camera rig in the real feeding back information into your VR experience.

Abstract reality: Why VR can learn from fine art

VR could become the equivalent of a scrap book for your life

Peer in through the doors and windows of the house and your adventure begins as you're sucked into, first, a room full of paintings including those of the Old Masters and of Nicholls himself, and then into a desolate, open-air theatre playing the Lumiere Brothers' pioneering cinema work of a train arriving at a station - a black and white that had audiences tearing from the exhibition for fear that the locomotive would run them down from out of the screen.

"It's still a really gimmicky thing," says Nicholls describing virtual reality at its current stage in his clipped Barnsley accent.

"The relationship of the physical space and the virtual space is what I began to think about, and how those spaces can mingle. You can't make this really deep and profound experience at the moment, so instead we made it specific to this space. It's not a thing that you can download and look at anywhere in the world."

The cardboard house

With laughter and smiles from all that step into Veil, Nicholls jokes that it's the first time people have appreciated his work but, as he freely admits, the positive reaction could just as easily be from the novelty of the immersion of VR virgins rather than from his cleverness and creativity.

Abstract reality: Why VR can learn from fine art

VR as a gimmick is the obstacle that the second coming of this world-changing technology has to squeeze its way around, and it's here that artists such as Nicholls have the space and the experience to look a little deeper than normal workaday content producers into what it might truly offer. Art knows not of budgets, audience figures and marketability and it's a chance for VR to really have a play.

Everyone's first go on an Oculus Rift is a jaw-dropper because its immersive power is so strong. Your eyes are screaming to you that you're really standing in this other digital world and there's only a small, baffled, rational part of your brain to argue otherwise. But that effect fades the more regularly you use it, according to Veil's co-creator, Szirtes who himself works with VR on a daily basis.

"At the moment, the typical demo is going on a roller-coaster. It's simple and effective and it's about trying to wow people. It's like early 3D cinema throwing things in people's faces and we didn't want to do that.

"Through making this, one of the things that we've discovered is really pleasurable about VR is simply the experience of being in another space and actually it works particularly well when you're really close to objects. You can create massive vistas but when you see simple objects really close and just look at them, that's just as fascinating, and that's what we wanted to do. There's something pleasing about it. It feels solid."

Abstract reality: Why VR can learn from fine art

True to their word, it's the detail in Veil that's most effective. The cardboard house that Nicholls spent a matter of minutes gluing together, he took hours painstakingly recreating in a 3D digital model down to the contours of the corrugations. Holding that with your hands while seeing it in VR is as mesmerizing as the brushstrokes he used for the wooden floorboards of its interior and the upturned chairs of the ghostly desert landscape. Only the wires connected your headset to the installation and the knowledge at the far back of your brain that you're standing in a gallery full of expensive works are prevent you from heading off for that stroll through the virtual that your mind is longing to take.

"It all needs to be ideas that you couldn't do in real life," surmises Nicholls considering what he learned of the medium through his work.

"Everyone's talking about it likes it's just games, games, games but it's going to be much more profound than that obviously. In a video game in VR, say a car driving game; well, you can go out and drive a care in reality. So, it's about what can you do in VR that you can't do in real life, and the answer to that is all about space. It's a very unusual space that's never even existed before."

In a video game in VR, say a car driving game; well, you can go out and drive a care in reality. So, it's about what can you do in VR that you can't do in real life

In the same way that the cardboard house in Veil is an object that the user picks up and then gets sucked into, one of Nicholls's ideas for VR is as a way to experience our memories. Rather than dads pottering off to their sheds for a space of their own, people living in the same house could put on their virtual reality goggles for their own personal versions of home.

"If you live in a house for a long time, all the objects around have meaning to them. So, it could become the equivalent of a scrap book for your life. You could have a room, with things in it that you can interact with that can take you to another place where those memories were made."

There's something quite tragic about getting lost in a world of virtual nostalgia but creating new spaces to explore based on items which already hold interest for you seems like the right kind of direction for next-level VR thinking.

Abstract reality: Why VR can learn from fine art

Of course, the fine art/VR relationship will not be a one-way interaction. It's an opportunity for galleries themselves to evolve. Panther Modern is perhaps the simplest, most obvious and utterly effective example. It's a virtual exhibition space built as a 3D computer model, which you can access from your PC. Go and have a look now.

Founded just over a year ago, it commissions artist to come up with digital work, which is then built onto the gallery as an added hall for users to peruse as they wish. It's ever-growing, it cuts out material costs, it gives opportunities to upcoming artists at little risk to itself and, best of all, it's completely accessible – all important barriers to remove in fine art's goal of pushing boundaries and expanding its audience.

While a virtual experience of an art gallery from your desk might kill off some of the current video installations, Panther Modern, and whatever immersive grandeur Oculus and friends can conjure, are unlikely to stop people going to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. Just as objects can be fascinating in VR, there's an authenticity about looking at a genuine work that won't be displaced either.

What's more, Nicholls has a vision for landscape art that could really bring it to life. His work is often recreated from a textured version of photographs he's taken on his walks. With enough material, he could model his whole journey into a 3D virtual world and allow the viewer to step into his paintings and follow his footsteps from that afternoon or even explore in their own sandboxed, non-linear ways.

Abstract reality: Why VR can learn from fine art

With VR goggles replacing a traditional audio guide, in-depth interaction is almost guaranteed

Imagine taking a stroll through Van Gogh's Provence on his Starry Night or hitching a ride on the back of the Hay Wain and it's obvious how virtual reality could delight and capture the imagination of audiences that it might have missed in the past as well as lead to a greater understanding of the artist's intentions. Artist rue the fact that their time-intensive creations are often passed by with just a glance in a gallery. With VR goggles replacing a traditional audio guide, in-depth interaction is almost guaranteed.

As Nicholls points out, we barely understand the nature of virtual reality itself. Whether VR or fine art will come out the richer from this unlikely marriage is simply obtuse future-gazing.

"Saying what can it do for galleries and this and that is the wrong way of thinking about VR. It's going to do its own thing. It's like putting a square peg in a round hole if you're trying to make it fit into the things we know about now. It's so different and powerful, it will set its own rules. It's a completely new medium. I doubt even Facebook knows what it is but, like the rest of us, they just know it's going to be big."


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I'm a technology and sports journalist and writer with over 15 years experience. Most recently my role centres around monetising editorial in a content lead role at Future Publishing, writing for What Hi-Fi, TechRadar.

I'm also a published author and a presenter for both national radio and for video too. I've appeared on TV news channels, online videos, podcasts and I've worked for BBC Radio 2, Radio 4 and had a regular slot on BBC Asian Network as the resident gadget expert.

In a previous life, I was a professional actor. I also lectured at Harlow College on digital publishing for two years. Loves include skiing, cats, canoeing, singing and football.

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