A Walk of Art: Experiencing VR

A few weeks ago, I created a 3-D piece of art while suspended in space. I wrapped tubes of smoke in spherical form around a star emitting beams of radiant light and used multi-color plasma-looking streaks that outlined pockets of bursting energy. And I was just getting started.

The experience was immersive, visceral, and immensely satisfying. When I finished, I invited my friend Dave to walk through the world I created. Then, my friend Louis floated through space with the Christmas tree he painted. We were all in the world of Tilt Brush, a new program that lets you create art in virtual reality (VR). All of us were giddy with excitement and wonder, laughing and eager to share and engage with each other, like children.


The experience was part of my tour of MxR, a VR lab at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. One my my hosts, Wasef El-Kharouf, said that using Tilt Brush (which was on loan to the lab) is one of only a handful of VR experiences he has had that has truly transformed how he views the potential for the technology.

Wearing the VR goggles, I had in my hands two Wii-like controls that rather intuitively let me explore different colors, brush strokes, and patterns, all in the 3-D world – all the while moving around a large physical space about 15'X15'. The Vive system has base stations at the edge of the boxed off area I was walking through that sensed in real time where my hands were, enabling this unique immersive experience.

Wasef is working on his MFA thesis in the lab under Vangelis Lympouridis, one of our other hosts. Until the lab tour, I did not realize that MxR is actually the birthplace of many common VR tech we use today, including the cardboard smartphone base viewers. Now Vangelis and his team are working to make what we see in VR as realistic as possible, visuals unlike traditional video game graphics. The lab is full of puppets with unique properties, such as a peacock with shimmery feathers, so that they can perfect capturing complex characteristics, like how the light reflects off the peacock's feathers.


As Vangelis describes it, “everything is a continuum;” he wants people to behave in the VR environment as they would in any other. That means cutting down the cognitive processes running in our minds when we're in VR, to better mirror our natural reactions in the non-VR world. What is most groundbreaking now in VR, he said, is not the content itself but the delivery. He thinks the future of VR is augmented reality (AR) that combines VR with multi-sensory experiences.

Already, VR is opening up new lenses to the world by allowing people to experience other cultures and environments in the first person. Vangelis and Wasef, like many in the field, hope that it can bring more understanding between people, and maybe even cut back on material consumption, by replacing material goods with experiences.

I left the lab more of a believer than when I entered. Just the simple act of sharing my 3-D painting with Dave was transformative. It was intimate and powerful, creating 3-D worlds that my friends and I could experience together.

Check out this video my friends Louis and Dave created about the visit: