No tech feels as now as virtual reality, which has had several moments in recent decades but might actually take root with the current wave of consumer head-mounted displays, or HMDs. They're bringing a wider audience closer to true VR, the seamless immersion of all five senses in an interactive simulated environment, than ever before.
If the tech is pretty new, the fantasy is very old. We've just been waiting for science to catch up with our collective dream—or nightmare—of infinite worlds without limits or consequences. Long before The Matrix and the Star Trek Holodeck established VR's dark and light sides in the popular imagination, long before computers existed, sci-fi writer Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote about goggles-based VR in "Pygmalion's Spectacles." It was published in 1935.
Really, the story of VR began millennia ago, when humans first drew a boundary in space and agreed to imagine that whatever transpired inside it was set apart from the rest of reality—a world within a world. We call this device a frame when it outlines two dimensions, a stage when it outlines three. In the twentieth century, it flattened and deepened into screens that, with a certain inevitability, are becoming permeable in the twenty-first. Now we face the question of whether we'll soon reach the logical conclusion and lock the virtual door behind us.
- photo courtesy of Tyler Jackson
- A screenshot of an environment users will experience in full, immersive 3-D.
Virtual reality is most commonly used for games, research, education, and journalism, roughly in that order. Art is the next frontier. Tyler Jackson, who is opening his show Before the War at Lump on Friday, is one of the artists scouting that frontier. Last week, Jackson and his team gathered at his home in Raleigh to test a rough version. The characters and abstract storyline developed in Jackson's history as a painter and an animator, but he needed five people to bring it to virtual life: story consultant Fabian Marquez, project manager Alisha Hawkins, developer Doug Kinnison, 3-D artist Derick Childress, and sound designer Alex Davis. They all met through working for Centerline Digital, a Raleigh agency where Jackson worked as an animator after growing up in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and then studying painting and "intermedia" in Portland.
To explore Before the War, you don a Vive HMD and grip a haptic-feedback wand. You find yourself immersed in a shadowy, seemingly cavernous space, standing before a table. Touching the various objects it holds allows you to enter different scenes that characters flit through, adumbrating if not spelling out a story about life and death as seen from some liminal place. It's all based on sketches, paintings, and models Jackson made before he ever considered VR.
"The basic beginning is that I drew this stupid-looking guy who looked like a French ninja," Jackson says of his protagonist, Sir Bishop Jenkins. "I started making up stories and introducing more characters. At one point I was going to write a children's book, but then I introduced a skeleton character and it got a little darker."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Jackson's model of Sir Bishop Jenkins was digitally scanned into the VR experience.
Entering Jackson's virtual world is like walking inside the classic adventure game Myst, but as directed by Tim Burton. When you lean out of a window and see the woods spreading into your peripheral vision, or you look down and see a rope ladder dangling vertiginously into streaming clouds beneath your feet, the sense of having entered another world is profound. For gamers, it will be instantly familiar. For non-gamers, it will be like nothing they've ever experienced before. Artists in major urban centers have begun to dabble in VR, and some locals, such as those in Duke's Experimental and Documentary Arts MFA, have created shows at DiVE, the university's state-of-the-art walk-in simulator. But Before the War is the first local gallery show focused on VR that I know of.
Jackson has never worked with VR before, which is apt. Any artist who approaches it now does so in a state of thrilling naiveté. Lump's Kelly McChesney likens it to the early days of video art, before it developed an artistic vocabulary, when pioneers like Nam June Paik were simply exploring what the new medium could do.
"I missed that beginning bubble, when everybody was just grabbing onto the technology and experimenting," McChesney says. "There were fails all over the place, but it was a cool time. With virtual reality, we're in this moment when we don't know how it's going to work. Artists haven't been able to grab hold of this tech until recently, so I'm excited to see how it blossoms."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Tyler Jackson
Though the consumer market is awash in VR, it's still expensive enough that many don't have access to it. Before the War is about letting the community try the technology as well as artists. At Lump, Jackson wants to make sure visitors are informed before they put on HMDs but then left to their own devices to explore—for a limited time at the opening reception on Friday, or for as long as they'd like through the month of August, but always in pairs.
"When people put on VR for the first time, they want to describe it to people," Jackson explains. This is true—you feel compelled to narrate the experience, perhaps to assure yourself you're still there, in your body. Right now, the emotional subtlety of VR art is limited by the sense-shocking novelty of the experience itself.
"People are overwhelmed," Jackson says. "When you look at Samsung commercials, people put on [HMDs] and they're blown away—the newness is the whole thing."
Kinnison, the developer, likens it to early cinema. "You had the train coming at you, twelve frames a second, and everyone jumped out of the way," he says. "The easiest emotion to convey is fear, as we've seen in a lot of virtual reality games. That's the emotion we want to stay away from, because if you're not expecting it, it's a very bad experience." But there are also important ways that VR is distinct from film, though we always tend to understand new tech in terms of what it threatens to replace.
In an exploration-based medium like VR, "you can't direct attention with framing or focus," Kinnison says. "A lot of the tools developed for cinema just don't carry over, and I don't think anybody's figured out what the new rules are."
"If you push people through it, you're just showing them a 3-D video," Jackson adds. Modest and energetic, he seems almost in awe of the edges of new possibilities glinting before him. "As an artist, it's not common for me to think that everything is possible. But here, everything is possible."