Last March, Facebook spent around $2 billion to buy Oculus VR, a virtual-reality company founded by 22-year-old Palmer Luckey. Mark Zuckerberg called Oculus “a new communication platform,” and spoke of sharing “entire experiences and adventures” through the use of the technology. Pop culture has long had a fixation with virtual reality, but less as a certainty and more as an apocalyptic portent (consider the respective plots of Lawnmower Man and Neuromancer). As Oculus—and in particular its gaming headset, the Rift—becomes increasingly popular, a growing number of artists are exploring the creative potential of the device.
“I know they’re marketing [the Rift] as a video-game thing, but that hasn’t hit yet,” New York–based artist Ian Cheng told ARTnews. “So it’s wide open for us in how we define its sort of social reality.” Cheng’s 2013 installation ewCloud (Anggi & Angeli) features a custom sofa with two Oculus Rift headsets resting atop it that transported viewers into a deeply abstracted 3-D world. Cheng called the Rift “the perfect bridge tool,” explaining that the device produces work that can “live very comfortably in the world of art and the world of games.”
Not everyone is using the Oculus Rift with such reverence. In Koons’s Rabbit Reflections (2014), Baltimore-based artist Alan Resnick approximates the feeling of a blue-chip gallery opening, with 3-D renderings of Jeff Koons’s iconic sculptures as centerpieces. As the viewer tilts his Oculus Rift–tethered head, photographers appear and snap virtual pictures. “You associate the Oculus with these crazy 3-D fantasy graphics, but it’s interesting to see it project the mundane environment of a New York art opening,” Resnick said.
The notion of virtual reality has its roots in the arts. The term itself comes from Antonin Artaud’s 1938 book, The Theatre and Its Double, and some tech historians trace the concept back to 19th-century panoramic murals. In a phone interview, Los Angeles–based artist Pascual Sisto discussed Dan Graham’s “Time Delay Rooms”—a series of installations comprising security cameras, video monitors, and time delay—as works that call to mind the distorted reality of the Oculus Rift’s head-mounted display.
Whether the Oculus Rift will make a lasting impact, though, is questionable. New technology often has a burst of fad appeal before fading into obscurity (remember the laser disc—or even the iPhone 3?), and all these artists admit that the Rift’s technology is far from perfect. Many of the design flaws of ’90s virtual reality (oversize goggles, cumbersome wires) are still present. There is, however, one crucial difference now.
“People put money behind this,” Cheng said. “Facebook put money behind this. I think that is a real indicator of other people’s sense of pattern recognition with this thing.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 52 under the title “Virtual-Reality Art Gets Real.”