Brush up: Inside the Royal Academy's virtual reality art experiments

Virtual reality art is coming and the RA is leading the charge
Inside VR artworks at the RA
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Please don't touch the artwork. Be responsible and thoughtful. Don't climb up on the pedestal or cross the barrier.

These rules are regularly drummed into any conscientious gallery visitor whether our instructions come from the Royal Academy of Art, the Musée de l' Orangerie or the Mori Art Museum. I'm thinking about this as I watch my friend Irene drawing neon lines around a piece of VR artwork inside a HTC Vive headset.

Five minutes earlier, I had used the Vive controller's trigger to move around all angles of the 3D works in VR (as instructed) but, even though I've used Google's Tilt Brush app before, I simply marvelled at the giant fingers, virtual sculptures and colourful circuits the artists had created, like a good girl. Was my friend defacing the virtual artwork or was I being too polite?

We're at the preview of Virtually Real, the Royal Academy's first exhibition of VR art, which runs from 12 to 14 January 2017 at the revered London institution. Three artists - Adham Faramawy, Jessy Jetpacks and Elliot Dodd - are showing off 12 sketches created in virtual reality, in amongst the landscapes and portraits adorning the walls of the RA's first floor private apartments. "What you see on the walls around you was once thought of as radical," points out Eileen Cooper, keeper of the Royal Academy.

By January, each artist will have created one piece, using VR drawing app Tilt Brush in a HTC Vive and 3D modelling tool Kodon, that will be displayed in the RA's galleries once SuperHuge 3D printing has, well, 3D printed it using object layer manufacturing.

Nobody knows what this software is yet

One of Elliot Dodd's five experiments puts the viewer inside a bubble-filled world, one in and around a futuristic car and another peering at a tight, multi-coloured spiral.

"With one sketch, I filled up the entire workspace with bubbles until it was almost crashing," he told me. "What's the limit of how many objects can be animated in one space? I instinctively look for where things start to crash, where the edges are."

Inside the Royal Academy VR experiments made with HTC Vive and Tilt Brush

A VR sketch by RA School alumni Elliot Dodd

To find anyone who has gone beyond a basic demo is really tough

The three artists taking part in the project are out on the edge of what'spossible so the usual solution of Googling for videos when you hit a wall with software isn't so helpful to them. "It's exciting because there's so little stuff," says Elliot Dodd. "To try and find anyone who has broken it or hacked it or done anything beyond the most basic demo is really tough. You genuinely feel like - nobody knows what this software is."

His plan for the show in January is to create a "giant, carnivalesque head" that visitors will be able to move around once it's 3D printed. How giant? "I think you'll be able to scale it up to however big you want. But pretty big."

You can see Dodd, an RA Schools alumni and Fellow who has worked in drawing, sculpture and 3D animation, at work creating one of those VR 'sketches' here, and it's pretty awesome to watch.

What's even more entrancing is what we got to do. An audio guide for the RA's Abstract Expressionists describes the Rothko painting Yellow Band as 'enterable' but this is something else. The only easily accessible app I can think of which comes close is the magical VR experiment The Night Cafe that lets you 'walk around' Van Gogh's painting for Steam, Oculus & Gear VR.

Altering the artistic environment

The creative industries, along with "casual gamers", make up one of the sets of people HTC is courting now that (probably) all the VR early adopters already have their Vives installed at home. "We're bringing the technology to new audiences," says Rickard Steiber, SVP of virtual reality at HTC. "What's lovely with creators is that you just introduce it to them and then step back and see what comes out of it."

Indeed, Oculus has had much the same idea. It just released its free, Tilt Brush-rivalling VR painting app Quill for its own PC-based headset, the Rift, this week.

Inside the Royal Academy VR experiments made with HTC Vive and Tilt Brush

A VR sketch by RA Schools final year student Jessy Jetpacks

It's much more common, though, to see exhibits in museums and galleries that can be experienced via VR headsets - from Bjork to St Pauls to MoMA - than actually made using the technology. Some artists would flee at the sight of gadgets and software in their studios but it's not just HTC that's keen to get VR creation tools into the right hands.

"VR has already altered our artistic environment," Mark Hampson, head of fine art processes at RA Schools, tells guests trying the demos across the hall from Rothkos and Pollocks. "Students are painting with light and pixels. Our art school may never look the same again."

After spending "too long" inside VR in the lead up to the preview, one unusual experiment is still on Dodd's Vive bucket list: "I'm aiming to fall asleep and wake up with the headset on because I really want to know what that would feel like. When you're not ready for it."

You can pre-order a ticket to Virtually Real to experience the works inside and outside of VR. Tickets are £45 but it is billed as an "evening of immersive virtual reality art" running from 7 till 11pm.