Parallel Worlds: how VR and AR became artists’ new canvas, and brands followed suit


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In early October, Snapchat announced a novel way to display art that launched with a collaboration with Jeff Koons. With the integration of a new special effects lens, the app invites users to hunt for augmented reality versions of Koons’ sculptures in popular public sites around the world, and artists interested in having their own work similarly shown can submit portfolios online. Snapchat’s big reveal, however, was quickly overshadowed by news that artist Sebastian Errazuriz and his studio Cross Lab had made a replica Balloon Dog in AR and virtually vandalised it as “a symbolic stance against corporate invasion.” The critical gesture smartly asked us to question how companies are managing virtual public space, but it was also yet another reminder of how artists are typically always a few steps ahead of corporations when it comes to innovative design.

This is particularly evident when it comes to virtual reality and augmented reality, which artists have been experimenting with for decades. Now that headsets are more accessible and companies release freely available technologies such as ARKit and Poly that make 3D creation easier, VR and AR are more mainstream than ever. It’s clear that countless brands and artists are using VR and AR for the sake of being part of this movement, but many others, thankfully, continue to create apps that tinker with reality in truly inventive and impressive ways.

One memorable, corporation-produced VR app that promotes experimentation in digital arts is the Museum of Gif Art (MoGA), which Giphy launched in March to foreground individual artists. The first VR museum dedicated to gif art, MoGA presents a mesmerising way to experience animated images, transforming them from flat, looping files into seemingly tangible objects that invite examination. Like any physical museum, it also hosts regular exhibitions throughout the year with a revolving roster of participants, so artists are encouraged to explore how gifs can function in VR.

One artist who really reveals the potential of VR’s infinite, immersive realm is Kevin Mack, who released his mind-bending Blortasia early this year for the HTC Vive. Unlike the majority of VR projects, Blortasia is void of narrative and objective; it is simply an experience, albeit one that is constantly changing and, therefore, unique to each VR session. Mack situates you in what he describes as “an animated psychedelic sculpture park,” where you’re free to wander through caverns of rainbow globs for as long as you desire. The journey – like swimming through a lava lamp whose bottle was just shaken – is wondrous and hypnotic, exemplifying the soothing power of VR.

This year, though, it’s the number of AR projects that has really exploded. Largely thanks to the global craze around Pokemon Go followed by Apple’s release of ARKit, experimentation with AR is now widespread. Unlike virtual reality, which positions you in an entirely new, immersive world, AR is digital information projected onto your surroundings (as seen on a screen), making it far more applicable to everyday life than VR.

As it’s also more accessible than VR (experiences require no headset), AR is especially transforming the world of retail. In just the last few months, Ikea, Target, then Amazon each launched new smartphone features that allow customers to visualise products in their homes, from the comfort of their homes. All three function similarly, allowing users to place an AR version of anything from furniture to home decor onto an image of a room as captured by their cameraphone.

Useful as they are, these apps illustrate the most basic application of AR: the addition of digital data to a specific, physical site. One practical app that uses AR in an innovative way is HotStepper the first virtual wayfinding app for iOS launched recently by Nexus Studios. How it works is simple: follow a jolly, shirtless man as he strides on your screen, leading you along a route to any entered destination. Although it probably requires a lot of battery power, HotStepper cleverly combines AR, geolocation, and mapping technology to provide a comical alternative to your smartphone map of choice.

Such apps that integrate real-time data to tell stories are among those that stand out the most in the swelling sea of AR projects. In October, design studio Paper Triangles premiered White Noise a beautifully designed, AR coral ecosystem whose livelihood depends on current Twitter conversations about human consumption. Tweets – accessed through Twitter’s API – that the team deemed negative about climate change generate 3D animations that destroy the coral, while positive tweets generate visuals that nourish it. While many current uses of AR tend to be superfluous, White Noise integrates virtual content in an engaging way that raises awareness about climate change and also considers an innovative way to visualise data. Notably, artist Laila Shereen Sakr is exploring this similar concept in VR, creating ever-changing immersive experiences based on real-time data. Her ongoing production, 2018 Arab Future Tripping VR Prototype, feeds on tweets to produce entire landscapes where the shapes of objects depend on the data received.

One of this year’s exceptionally delightful AR experiences allows users to create their own virtual objects to interact with – specifically, fish, aquatic plants, and sparkly crystals. _ARQUA!), the brainchild of artist Isaac Cohen (more widely known as Cabbibo), is a game that transforms your surroundings into a customised rainbow aquarium. Users add underwater bling to a room by painting kelp, rocks, and more with a simple swipe of a finger, so your bare office desk can suddenly spring to life with wriggling, psychedelic fronds, or luminescent guppies can swarm your unsuspecting cat.

Cabbibo’s game demonstrates how closely integrated reality and virtual worlds can get. These boundaries will inevitably get fuzzier as technologies develop, and how much of our world we will experience through AR and VR in the next year or two alone is anyone’s guess. One thing’s for certain: even if corporations continue to develop groundbreaking, free tools to build virtual worlds, it’ll be artists who deploy them in unprecedented ways. As Errazuriz’s act of vandalism reminds, tech companies are not alone in having mastered the art of disruption.

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