My first experience with VR ever was holding my iPhone 4s two inches away from my eyes to look around my bedroom at a school of poorly rendered digital fish. This happened years ago, and needless to say, I was not impressed. But when I put on the VR headset at Interstitial for the opening of Mind at Large, I was blown away.
Seattle based artists Brandon Aleson, Benjamin Van Citters, and Reilly Donovan have created a unique virtual-reality installation which merges our sensory perception of the tangible with how we interpret and experience digital environments. The gallery is sparse: one wall is red, the other green, and the two pieces of furniture are putty grey. A small bookcase divides the room and there is a table along the back wall–both are empty until you don the headset.
This set up is meant to physically mimic the Cornell Box, a digital environment utilized to help test 3D renderings—in short, they have taken the digital, made it physical, only to then make it digital again. Conceptually, the supposition of the digital layered over the physical (the digital table is rendered to match the exact location of the physical table etc.) is a commentary on our perception of reality and domestic spaces, but practically it helped me avoid walking headfirst into a wall.
The headset effectively blinds you, covering your eyes so that the visuals you experience are through your interaction with the digitized environment. You can see books filling the once empty bookshelf, a potted plant which sings and grows as you approach it on the table, and a window to a digitized backyard; I quickly discovered that the books can be thrown at the wall and through the window, but you cannot knock over the potted plant–needless to say I tried. Despite the potential for havoc, a quietness exists under the headset. There is a special beauty to being cut off and fully enveloped in this virtual world.
Mind at Large is so much more than a glorified demo booth for VR technology; it represents a turning point in how contemporary artists are utilizing the technology to express concepts such as impermanence and perception. It left me wondering: How have our perceptions of reality shifted with the capability for full sensory digitization? As digital environments become more and more "real" where do we draw a new boundary between the tangibly experienced and the digitally experienced? Seattle still has a vibrant and innovative arts scene, and we can skirt being devoured by tech-bros as long as artists continue to repurpose technology for art.