Art Basel Miami Beach 2014 Artists Market

Jon Rafman Had a Great Virtual Reality Piece at NADA

A NADA visitor using the Oculus Rift headset.

A NADA visitor using the Oculus Rift headset.

Earlier this week, on the 11th floor of the Deauville hotel, home to the NADA art fair in Miami, virtual reality system to recreate and deconstruct that very room. You experience the piece from the balcony. You’re told to stand in a certain spot and touch the glass while the wearing the headset.

After it boots up, the viewer is met with an image very much like the one that went away after she put on the headset. You see a CGI version of the room as it was: the bed, the desk, the lamp, the TV. The only difference is that when you put on the headset a blurry version of Scarface wasn’t playing on the television, as it is in the Rift version. (You can hear the sound of the movie in the room, where it’s actually playing off the computer running the program.)

You may then move slightly, or look around you to see the balcony, or turn 180 degrees to see the ocean, which you can still hear in the real world. The only thing not there is your body, which is a little strange but you forget about it pretty easily since, touching the glass, you feel a bit outside whatever world you’re watching anyway. Then the room starts to deconstruct, the walls fold. The balcony disappears, revealing the weird blue of the virtual ocean. The walls fly at you but you can still peek around them to see the television, and the form of a body that had been resting on the bed. Those remain constant.

After I saw the piece Rafman told me he wanted to incorporate reality into the Rift, which most programs for it avoid (it’s largely a video game peripheral at this point in its technological lifespan). The haptic feedback of the glass, he said, “blurs the unreal and the real.” After you take off the headset, he said, “your perception of the sky changes.

“The other sky in the program is so intense, the real one becomes less real or hyper-real,” Rafman said. “Better graphics or something.”

Rafman (who is represented by Zach Feuer gallery, which helped stage the piece) noted that this is one of the first virtual spaces he’s created, usually he just explores them in places like Second Life, Google Maps, or within video games. For this project he reached out to the artist Sterling Crispin, who has Oculus Rift programming experience and happened to be in the room at the time.

He estimated that he’d put “a couple of hundred hours” into the programming, working for 15 hours straight just before the fair opened, to make all the minor adjustments necessary to make the program sync up with the room.

Those really are the same elements of the room that you were looking at before, flying at you as the room disintegrates, he said.

“The sky is also a giant box of volume, he said. “When it shatters, it leaves you with this infinite understanding of digital space.”

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