Culture Crush

VR: Touring New Digital Landscapes

A look at initiatives in gaming, art, science, journalism, and more

I’m sitting in my office and an American bison is sniffing my face. His gigantic shaggy body ambles over, extending a wet snout that nearly collides with my forehead. The size of this horned, massive creature is so immediate it’s overwhelming. Loud snuffling fills my ears and I notice how long his eyelashes are. Pretty.

Next I’m running across a decimated rooftop with a ten year old boy in Ukraine. Sitting back-seat in a makeshift boat in South Sudan traveling through a swamp, I look behind me at the wet marshland stretching for miles. I’m flying through the sky over New York City with Michael Fassbender when I start to realize I don’t feel so good. I take the Google Cardboard viewer off and drink a glass of water. It’s five or ten minutes before the nausea subsides.

A Lot of Eyes
Talking to Lauren Valko, a motions graphics designer at Real Art with a background in game development, I’m starting to feel like kind of a wimp. She describes the VR game community’s interest in pushing the boundaries of how users interact with virtual worlds, highlighting what’s called room-scale VR, experiences that turn the player’s body into the controller and provide a physical environment that mimics the gamespace. (Hard to imagine, considering the trouble I had just sitting in a chair.)

The immersion was sometimes so complete that when instructed to jump off the board, most were too afraid.

“In one simple test, designers created a virtual pit with a plank extending across the edge. Players stood on a physical board mirroring the exact dimensions of the board in-game,” Valko describes. “While the player was actually standing only 1 inch off the ground, gazing down they encountered a bottomless hole. If they toed the edge of the board, the designer was able to trick both the player’s eyes and sense of touch. The immersion was sometimes so complete that when instructed to jump off the board, most were too afraid.”

Virtual reality, a concept that’s been around for decades, finally seems to be having its commercial moment. The image of Mark Zuckerberg at Mobile World Congress this week merrily strolling through a sea of headsets was everywhere. However apocalyptic or exciting the scene may appear to you, Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus in 2014 is suddenly making a lot of sense as other tech giants embrace his projection from 2014 that “virtual and augmented reality will become a part of people’s daily lives.”


“A lot of eyes rest on the VR industry in particular right now,” Valko says. “People are interested to see where they can push it—what limits they can break. And it’s a challenge a lot of them are excited to take on.”

“Not only does this new technology open up a whole new realm of possibilities for some truly immersive player experiences, it also has people starting to question a lot of things,” she continues. “Things like: what comes next, in what other mediums can VR be applied.

A Whole New Realm
This November, The New York Times Sunday edition arrived on a million doorsteps along with a Google Cardboard viewer. Accessing the NYT VR app is free and promised to “take you halfway around the world.” The Displaced travels to Lebanon, South Sudan and Ukraine to profile child refugees, Take Flight recreates iconic flying scenes with Hollywood stars over New York City, and you can watch content from the Sundance Film Festival like American Bison set in the plains. It was hugely popular, proving to be the most successful app launch ever for the newspaper.

Beyond journalism, VR presents incredible opportunities in science and education. Renowned BBC broadcaster David Attenborough recently presented a 360-degree video featuring a 120-foot-long titanosaur. Not only does the experience provide a sense of the dinosaur’s massive presence but it represents a shift for the audience from viewer to participant. No longer beholden to the director’s choices, we can look around as though operating the camera ourselves. It’s a new mode of discovery, and this kind of virtual expedition could transform the classroom.


“Virtual reality, fundamentally, is a technology that removes borders,” as filmmaker Chris Milk put it. “Anything can be local to you.” The ability to immerse oneself in a completely unknown environment has incredible potential to foster empathy and presents a powerful tool for advocacy. Milk’s VR production company has partnered with the United Nations to create films highlighting the most pressing humanitarian issues of our day, including the Syrian refugee crisis and climate change.

A lot of eyes rest on the VR industry in particular right now.

Of course, the transformative technology raises many questions. As our digital and ‘real’ lives become increasingly intertwined, artists are employing VR to explore the virtual reality we are in some ways already living in. Rachel Rossin is a painter and programmer whose shows blend oil painting with Oculus Rift VR experiences. Rossin sees lossy compression (techniques that reduce a file’s size by shedding unnecessary information, permanently altering the file’s content and taking up less space but at the expense of overall quality) as a metaphor for the inevitable experience of living in modern digital society. Her process involves using photogrammetry software to capture 3-D scans of spaces which she then feeds into 3-D gaming software like Unity. After altering them, she translates her digital scenes into oil paintings. The paintings are presented alongside her VR experiences, mirroring the manipulated and deformed reality you see in the VR pieces.

An Open Mind
In spite of hesitations and concerns, Jessica Brillhart, Google’s principal filmmaker for virtual reality, urges keeping an open mind. “The medium is something that needs to reveal itself, and the worst thing we can do is make assumptions about it and not experiment and explore it in a way that would really allow it to reveal what it needs to,” Brillhart told realscreen. “It’s more of a plea for people to be a bit more open-minded with the format. Right now, there’s too many presumptions and assumptions that may be preventing [VR] from really affecting us the way that it can.”


Got you hooked? Here’s more:

Across Industries
The Creative Landscape of Virtual Reality
Versions is a new conference on creative practice and alternate realities

Modern ‘Times’: NYT looks to lead in VR space
An interview with Sam Dolnick from the NYTimes VR team

The UN’s First Virtual Reality Documentary
An interview with director Gabo Arora

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