The Royal Academy's VR experiments let you get inside artists' heads

We check out the new Vive Arts experiences at the From Life exhibition
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I hate to sound like an unimaginative Tinder profile, but I do enjoy going to art galleries. Switching off my phone, putting away my camera and strolling around in silence, staring at pieces of work that have existed for just two years or more than two hundred years.

You can appreciate the skill that is required to produce something beautiful, but what's more interesting is often the vision that compelled a painter or sculptor to pick up a brush, pencil or rasp and create something new. And there's only so much a caption beside a painting, or a curator's audio guide, can convey of the story behind those works. Virtual reality is offering a new way to tell those stories and it could be the next big step to bringing artists and their fans much closer together.

Read this: How the Tate Modern recreated Modigliani's studio in VR

The From Life exhibition, which runs from December 2017 to March 2018, takes place across the Sackler Wing of Galleries and Tennant Gallery in the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Taking the short lift ride up to the second floor of the RA building and walking through to the first of those two spaces, curator Adrian Locke is already in full flow bringing some context to a collection that explores creative encounters of the human body.

In the first space I see 18th century artworks before entering a room filled with life drawings. Iggy Pop is the high profile life model and all of these drawings were taken from Jeremy Deller's Iggy Pop Life Class, which took place in the Brooklyn Museum in 2016. The From Life exhibition is a step through time and is concerned with how artists' interpretations of the body have evolved thanks to the tools and the technology that have been available to create those interpretations.

The Royal Academy's VR experiments let you get inside artists' heads

Credit: Jonathan Yeo's "Homage to Paolozzi" (Self Portrait) (2017)

So where does virtual reality come in? A good place to begin is British portrait painter Jonathan Yeo's "Homage to Paolozzi" (Self Portrait). This is a bronze sculpture of his own head and it was created using advanced 3D scanning technology and Google's Tilt Brush software on the Vive. Headset on and within the app, Yeo was able to capture the brush strokes and translate them into the physical object.

"I could explore sculpting using the skills developed in my painting practice and within my own studio environment," Yeo explained in a post on Google's blog. "What's really exciting is how the final bronze structure precisely captures the free, expressive movements that were previously only possible in paintings. The result is a hybrid of painting and virtual creation, and could open up a world of possibilities for other artists to experiment and take this new medium much further."

It's not just VR that Yeo is experimenting with. I'm also shown how he is embracing augmented reality, allowing visitors to see the very same sculpture virtually presented in a physical space.

This is a virtual interpretation of the self portrait that I can walk right through, getting up close with all the intricate elements of the scanning process including the gaps where the scanning hasn't been able to fully capture its subject.

The RA's VR art experiments

The Royal Academy's VR experiments let you get inside artists' heads

There are further works from Farshid Moussavi, Yinka Shonibare and Humphrey Ocean, all of whom have also dabbled in this new medium of virtual reality. To discover those I need to head back downstairs into a softly lit space with long draping curtains to separate the three virtual reality experiences. These are the latest additions to HTC's new Vive Arts program, which has been set up to "advance the creation and the appreciation of the arts."

I walk straight through the painting and into a garden where I can see a brightly coloured sculpture

With the headsets suspended from the ceiling, I grab the accompanying Vive controllers to try out the first; British painter Humphrey Ocean's What Next (2017). Inspired by his fascination with chairs, Ocean has used Tilt Brush to place the viewer inside a room with a chair he has designed, surrounded by statements he made while experimenting with the VR tools. I can wander pretty freely using one controller to access my palette and the other create my own artwork to a soundtrack Ocean has also composed. If you've never experienced Tilt Brush, I can see why this would be the most impressive of the experiments. It fully immerses you in the mindset of the artist but also gives you the freedom to create your own virtual masterpiece.

Next up is British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare's Helen to Paris (with Townley Venus) (2017). I'm dropped into Ancient Greek-like surroundings, and I'm guided by an RA assistant to take a few steps forward as I come face to face with the 1785 painting by Gavin Hamilton. Then I walk straight through it and into a garden where birds are tweeting and I can see Shonibare's brightly coloured sculpture. The physical equivalent stands in front of a fire exit door upstairs in the RA. That for me is where VR really comes into its own. It is able to relocate an artwork to more salubrious surroundings that to the eyes and the senses gives the piece a more unique home.

The Royal Academy's VR experiments let you get inside artists' heads

Credit: Yinka Shonibare's Helen to Paris (with Townley Venus) (2017)

The last of the experiences sits in between Shonibare and Ocean's virtual works, this time using VR to explore the possibilities for creativity and design in the architectural world. Architect Farshid Moussavi has created Through the Virtual and the Architecture (2017), using the Vive to allow users to alter the makeup of a ribbed dome, a structure that apparently dates back to the Byzantine and early Italian architecture. Picking up the Vive controllers I can adjust the size of the space and the form and those changes happen instantly (barring some PC-related issues). It's a window into a world showing the way architects could use VR to rethink structures and pushing the boundaries of how those structures can manifests themselves in real life. It's still impressive, if not a little out of place next to Shonibare's and Ocean's experiments.

My time with this trio of VR art experiments is over and I can consider whether these experiences have succeeded in giving me a better insight into the artists that created them. With Yinka Shonibare's VR presentation I'm left with a better sense of the mythical influences on his work. With Ocean's immersive experience in particular, it's rooting you firmly in his mindset, what he thinks about, what's stirring in his mind as he creates his work. Like any new platform or medium, this feels like the very early stages of how VR can be used to tell an artist's story. The ability of headsets like the Vive to give such an intimate view into their workings clearly has immense potential when it comes to bringing art to life.

Before I left I wanted to head back up to the exhibition, which is largely free from tech aside from that small phone-based AR experience with Jonathan Yeo's piece. I wondered what it would be like if these virtual experiments sat beside their physical equivalents. Would it provide a better appreciation of these works? Would it clutter the expertly curated space? Virtual reality rigs like Vive still require space, PCs and trailing wires. It may be some time before the two are placed side-by-side, but there's no doubt that VR is finding its place in the art world.

The From Life exhibition is running from 11 December - 11 March 2018 at the Royal Academy of Arts and is sponsored by Vive in partnership with Google Arts & Culture and Sky Arts.

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Michael Sawh


Michael Sawh has been covering the wearable tech industry since the very first Fitbit landed back in 2011. Previously the resident wearable tech expert at Trusted Reviews, he also marshaled the features section of

He also regularly contributed to T3 magazine when they needed someone to talk about fitness trackers, running watches, headphones, tablets, and phones.

Michael writes for GQ, Wired, Coach Mag, Metro, MSN, BBC Focus, Stuff, TechRadar and has made several appearances on the BBC Travel Show to talk all things tech. 

Michael is a lover of all things sports and fitness-tech related, clocking up over 15 marathons and has put in serious hours in the pool all in the name of testing every fitness wearable going. Expect to see him with a minimum of two wearables at any given time.

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