On a typical day at Sotheby's, you'll find New York City's bourgeoisie bidding on Impressionist paintings and diamond collections. Not the kind of place you'd expect to find a bunch of tech geeks.
But last week, Sotheby's hosted its first Art of VR festival. On site were over fifty VR demos, including branded tie-ins for this year's Spiderman: Homecoming and Alien: Covenant films, Emmy contenders like Doug Liman's Invisible series, and virtual museum exhibits of 3D photos, paintings and sculptures.
We also attended a series of panels conducted by artists, museum curators, and filmmakers who have incorporated VR into the art world's mainstream. They described their breakthroughs in the field and goals for the future, pitching their project and funding ideas to Sotheby's rich clientele.
From curated AR painting galleries for your living room to crowdsourced generation of ancient landmarks as VR environments, we've highlighted the most exciting projects and concepts that could find their way onto your headsets.
Virtual worlds by citizen scientists
Brian Pope founded the Arc/k Project in a "state of outrage" after ISIS began to destroy the ancient structures of Palmyra in Syria during 2015. Pope's Project team scoured the Creative Commons for 3,500 images of the site prior to its desecration, and then stitched them together into one 3D environment, shown above.
During a panel titled Next Generation Museums, Storytelling and the Future of Education, Pope boasted that relying on public files encouraged everyday people to contribute to their vision of preservation.
"Anyone with a smartphone can become a citizen scientist," said Pope, "a walking sensor, who can add to the global collective memory, even with a casual tourist photo."
The stitching process, called photogrammetry, requires thousands of images to gather enough pixel data for each viewing angle of the subject, in order to create a convincing virtual testament to the real thing.
Game development studio The Astronauts famously used photogrammetry to recreate real-world settings for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a PSVR-compatible PS4 game. They discuss the technical challenges of this process on their blog.
Live-action VR can place you in a modern-day setting, but future animated VR worlds could eventually match live-action for realism and immersion using photogrammetry, while also placing the user in the past.
Thus far, Arc/k Project has focused its creations on past landmarks with historical significance, but other VR tourism and game developers will certainly extend photogrammetry's potential to other settings.
Preserving and disseminating art
Pope's team has also formed partnerships with museums, native tribes, and historical societies to create VR assets from their collections using photogrammetry. In this way, organizations can spread awareness of their artifacts worldwide, without having to actually ship them anywhere else.
"It's no longer considered acceptable for museums to ship artifacts across the world for exhibitions," said Pope. "The smallest environmental changes to a painting's environment triggers degradation that, once it starts, doesn't stop."
Virtual reality has become one solution to this. Rodrigo Cerqueira, CEO of Panogramma Inc., created a virtual tour of Brazil's famous Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand. Since 2010, Cerqueira claims, one in ten visitors to Brazil's gallery visits solely via VR, and he believes that number will rise as the technology improves.
Cerqueira also uses VR as a means of marketing traditional art at Sotheby's auctions. Starting in 2014, he founded the Bunker, a "pop-up exhibition" of virtual, augmented, and interactive artwork that appeared most recently at the Art of VR event. Artists team up with digital artists and VR coders to create tie-in VR content that highlights their piece's beauty, and showcase both the original painting and its augmentation at the Bunker to attract buyers' interest.
Artists would rather make thousands selling a painting than a few bucks from a VR app
For one painting by Jane Lafarge Hamill, I put on a headset and walked into her painting, shown above, causing it to shatter into pieces of brush strokes and layers across a virtual space. The bizarre experience helped me to more fully appreciate elements that, on the canvas, had first appeared totally random.
At another booth, a group called, simply, VR Art had created a museum sandbox. The user could select from a number of paintings and sculptures and place them wherever they wanted around a virtual space. Museum curators typically have to create tiny physical models with hundreds of miniature paintings just for one exhibition; this virtual setup will let curators know exactly what their exhibition will look like, in advance and to scale.
Eventually, Cerqueira argues, he hopes his VR art installations will let users customize their own VR or AR setups for their home, with varied art pieces to choose from and haptic feedback allowing users to touch and feel certain artifacts.
But right now, it's unclear when and if this will ever be feasible, as museums and artists may not want their works to be publicly available or downloadable. Hamill, for example, told attendees that the VR demo of her work would remain just a demo: artists, she said, would rather make thousands on a painting than a few bucks selling a VR app of their painting.
Virtual time capsules
One virtual museum that made waves at last week's event was the Harold Lloyd Stereoscopic Museum. A silent movie comedian and stunt man, Oscar-winner Harold Lloyd famously took over 200,000 stereoscopic photos during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Stereoscopic cameras take two simultaneous, layered photos that match our left and right eyes, creating a 3D effect that could only be viewed through a special viewfinder - until VR came along.
Before Danilo Moura, head of creative services & operations at LOOT Interactive, heard of Lloyd's collection, they had only been accessible via the original films, inserted into a special projector. But Moura realized that stereo 3D matched "the basic foundation of VR" - that you must create one image or stream per eye - and decided to incorporate all 200,000 photos into one VR exhibit that would serve as a "time capsule of the Hollywood golden era".
Not many other people took 3D photos during Lloyd's time, as it must have seemed like a gimmick. Now, however, Google Cardboard Camera lets anyone take these styles of photographs. As VR headsets become more ubiquitous, Lloyd's chosen format may become more popular with professional photographers.
Mapping our bodies for fun - and survival
Just as some VR companies use photogrammetry to map out realistic environments, others are trying to find natural ways to map out your face in real time to insert into virtual, multiplayer worlds.
John MacInnes and Remington Scott, who created amusing facial mirroring software on show at the event, have worked on characters like Gollum in Lord of the Rings and the performance capture avatars of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. During a panel on Realistic Human Avatars, they discussed their goal of creating avatars that will be molded in our image both physically and psychologically, and can then act independently even when not being controlled by us. In a way it's the logical conclusion of what a Renaissance portrait, say, was trying to capture.
While these lofty goals remain far in the future, VR is already being used to assist doctors and students in preparing for and completing brain surgeries. Dr. Alfred-Marc Iloreta, a doctor at Mount Sinai hospital, uses photogrammetry to stitch together multiple scans of a patient's head, then plans out his surgical pathway prior to the procedure.
Iloreta's work may not appear to fit with the theme of VR art at first glance, yet during his VR Health and Medicine panel, he reveals that prior to this technique being discovered, the surgery required him to peel back his patient's face, a procedure that mandated months of recovery and left permanent scars. So in a way, the surgical precision enabled by VR tech is another kind of preservation: one of art and beauty.
How we test