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Art and the Rift - Entering virtual reality

This article was first published in March 2015.

Last week I took a very odd trip. Standing under the sort of profoundly dark sky that does not – cannot – normally exist in cities, I looked up from the banks of the Tyne at the soaring, futuristic facade of Sage Gateshead, and watched the most completely engaging concert of my life. Although the sounds surging around me were reminiscent of steel drums, there wasn’t another human to be seen; the music was coming from the building itself, accompanied moment-by-moment by a shower of giant orange pixels that erupted from the walls to bounce around me. This was not, perhaps, the classic Tyne and Wear experience.

Alas, my psychedelic visit to the North East wasn’t for real (although my brain was pretty comprehensively fooled). I visited Sage Gateshead via an Oculus Rift developer’s headset, plugged into a laptop somewhere in the depths of Somerset House. Now owned by Facebook following a $2bn buyout, the Rift seems to be winning the race to bring consumer virtual reality to the masses – the model I used is likely to be the last iteration before a commercial version launches later this year.

As it stands, the communication and entertainment potential of an affordable virtual reality device is still entirely unmapped. But weird 3D Skype and progressively more troubling shoot-em-ups aren’t the only ways the Rift stands to change our perception of the world. Dozens of artists are already producing work that incorporates – or, in some cases, is only viewable through – the Oculus Rift apparatus, and some are entirely abandoning the traditional constrictions of the physical world.

the communication and entertainment potential of an affordable virtual reality device is still entirely unmapped

The suspension of disbelief necessary for a compelling virtual reality experience can often be thrown off by mundane practicalities - watching yourself run whilst feeling a chair beneath you, clicking a mouse or controller instead of reaching out and engaging with the world your eyes insist is there. One of the most daring attempts to transcend this disconnect has come from Skullmapping, a Belgian art collective that offers participants a chance to journey between this world and the next.

Visual artist Antoon Verbeeck and painter Filip Sterckx created Styx for the Belgian festival Leuven in Scene, but they’ve since exhibited the piece in various other venues around the world. However, this is nowhere near as simple as putting on a traditional exhibition. In order to create Styx, Verbeeck and Sterckx scan the exhibition space – bare save for a hard wooden bench – and create a faithful 360 degree rendering of it. Participants enter the room alone, carrying a golden coin, and sit on the bench before donning a Rift headset and headphones. To begin with, nothing untoward seems to have happened; they see the same bench, the same room, even the coin clutched in their animated fist. Then their descent begins.

The Styx from Skullmapping on Vimeo.

In Greek mythology, the river Styx is one of the five rivers of the underworld, down which the souls of the newly dead are transported by Charon, the ferryman. Once they’ve become accustomed to their surroundings, participants in The Styx abruptly sink through the floor upon their bench, dropping down and down until they land in a rickety boat. Charon approaches, accepts their coin (which is plucked from their real hand just as Charon takes his pixelated fee) and begins to pole the boat downriver.

Along the way, an immersive soundscape complements the increasingly fantastic journey – corpses or souls float in the water, sea monsters rear up and spatter water droplets across the boat and its occupants, and Charon occasionally gives a brusque instruction to shush or duck. I shan’t spoil the ending just in case you do get a chance to experience The Styx, but Verbeeck and Sterckx are very excited about being able to “build an imaginary world… make the impossible possible.”

At the other end of the scale is an artist who isn’t trying to create another world – in fact, he isn’t even intending to lend anyone his headset. Mark Farid is currently preparing for a project he’s called Seeing I, in which he will wear an Oculus Rift for 28 days whilst receiving audio and video feed from a volunteer ‘input’ wearing a Google Glass-type apparatus. Farid will live in an enclosed space within a gallery, containing only a bed and bathroom facilities, and will not remove the Rift at any point during the experiment.

The continuous footage will be streamed to Farid’s headset with a delay so that, for example, the meals his input eats can be prepared and fed to him as the artist sees them being eaten

This might sound like a wonderful way to completely demolish one’s sanity, but Farid’s experiment has some convincing backers. Cambridge psychopathologist Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, whose own work has centred around the ‘mind-blindness’ sometimes attributed to autistic people, believes that Seeing I is safe and that any side-effects should be reversible. Farid has also acquired a testimonial of sorts from Dr Georgina Cox, a research fellow in suicide prevention, who is keen to see how Farid’s emotional state is affected by living a life entirely devoid of choices.

As yet, a volunteer ‘Other’ has yet to be found, which is perhaps unsurprising; Farid has stipulated that his input must be in a relationship as well as straight and male (the latter conditions are to avoid complications). Whilst it does make sense to seek out a volunteer with a partner - such a person has more reason to announce their intentions aloud rather than simply thinking and acting, which will give Farid more of a handle on what’s happening from minute to minute – there can’t be many people willing to so utterly expose themselves and their relationships to a complete stranger.

Seeing I Trailer from John Ingle on Vimeo.

Anyone who’s used an Oculus Rift to play a video game will be familiar with the occasional, unnerving jerks when control of the camera is briefly removed – if, for example, a cutscene or forward roll forces your viewpoint in a direction you didn’t suggest. I don’t think we can underestimate how confusing it will be for Farid to have absolutely no control over where he looks, what he says, even how fast he walks. Having a handler to move his head in the direction of the Other’s gaze would almost certainly be less disorienting, but Farid is effectively abandoning his body to be a mute passenger in someone else’s mind.

I don’t think we can underestimate how confusing it will be for Farid to have absolutely no control over where he looks, what he says, even how fast he walks.

Perhaps he’ll stay in bed all day, every day. Maybe he’ll pace around his bare room, mimicking his input’s movements in an attempt to more fully immerse himself. And how on earth will this complete lack of agency affect his personality – could Farid emerge a more selfless man, granted enhanced empathy by his experiences, or will he have clung doggedly to his own interior monologue in an attempt to safeguard his sanity? Finding out will certainly be fascinating (and, one imagines, much less challenging for us as viewers than it will be for Farid as artist-cum-canvas).

Happily, at least for me, my Geordie journey into virtual reality has entirely failed to rewrite my personality. Play Sage Gateshead was initially developed as a unique musical project, commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Sage Gateshead and intended to be played on the building itself. The initial result was ‘Tenpulse’, a composition built from some of the most interesting sounds to be found in and around the venue. These sounds are, as you’d expect, largely percussive – hence my imagined steel drums – but Sage yielded a surprisingly varied aural palette and 'Tenpulse' makes for very interesting listening.

Scene from Play Sage Gateshead

It’s impossible to put a limit on the potential applications of virtual reality and, with the Oculus Rift just months away from a general release, we are likely to see a huge upswing in the number of industries seeking to explore it. From an artistic perspective, it’s also interesting to note that effective use of VR presents a huge barrier to entry, far more so, in practical terms, than a paintbrush and canvas or even a Punchdrunk-style immersive installation. If Instagram turned everyone into a photographer, the Oculus Rift will – at least temporarily – make art’s newest medium the domain of a relative handful of experts. There are already digital art courses that offer modules in 3D modelling and the like, and I think we can expect to see many more of them spring up in the years to come, but as it stands virtual reality art is a dark and mysterious river with very few ferrymen. Finding out what’s round the bend will be a surprise for all of us.

John Underwood is a freelance journalist specialising in food, film and technology. @JM_Underwood