Local Artists Are Turning to Virtual Reality Technology to Take Their Work to the Next Level

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What looked like giant shards of glass were suspended from the ceiling at odd angles and pulsating with hyperactive designs. Entering the room was like stepping inside a broken mirror that reflected psychedelic electronic images, immersing the viewer in a frenetic visual pingpong. Eric Trich was the man behind the disorienting installation, covering three walls of a studio space on Commerce Street in Deep Ellum, and he could be seen at the back of the room manipulating the visuals with a series of computers. In front of the installation was B3, a local musician, performing a DJ set. 

Trich cut his teeth in sculpture, but he has made a name for himself with site-specific, projection-mapped visuals at arts events and musical performances around town. He’s got a busy fall schedule ahead; he’s been tasked with creating all of the visuals for the Oaktopia Festival in Denton, including projection-mapping on the courthouse in the square, and he’s an integral part of Techweek Dallas, with a plan to projection-map onto a three-tiered DJ booth for the opening ceremonies, among other installations.

What he could only do in the physical world before, either projecting on buildings or on installations he created out of 3-D materials, he’s now increasingly able to do with virtual reality (VR), an emerging territory in art. And while Trich has been experimenting with it in his studio, he’s finally unveiling his first VR demo at Techweek during the first week of November.

“I'm interested in designing worlds that people can travel around in and interact with,” says Trich. “VR is so immersive; a painting or a sculpture or even a projection-mapping installation is nothing compared to being able to be in another place entirely.”

Trich explains that for the Techweek demo, an artist will be wearing a VR headset and creating a virtual painting using the Google Tilt Brush program. Trich will then translate that virtual canvas into a projection that viewers can see (since they won’t be wearing headsets).

It’s not as advanced as what he hopes to be doing in five years’ time but it’s a start.

“In the future once Apple and Android come out with headsets that look like a regular pair of glasses, then everybody will be wearing them,” says Trich. “I’ll be able to put things in 3-D space wherever I want them, and anybody wearing that headset will be able to walk in and download my app and they'll see everything I designed in that space.”

Trich is most concerned with the interactive and immersive possibilities of VR – principles he’s already been manipulating in the physical world. At a recent art and technology show, Trich had mapped a projection around three walls of the space. Using a LEAP motion camera and a host of software programs, he created an image of a 3-D modeled head that was controlled by a user’s hand motions. Raising a right hand up and down inverted the image, while moving the right hand left to right outlined the head. Moving the left hand left to right moved the head left to right.

As technology improves, Trich says VR will become ubiquitous and he'll no longer be limited by physical space. “Everything I design from then on out will be completely digital. I'm designing worlds. It's limitless.”

Jeremy McKane is another Dallas artist who is designing worlds using VR.

McKane is known for his LUCiD project, an installation that literally feeds off the brainwaves of participants. A user wearing a neurofeedback headset manipulates the images in the installation in real time. Scenes of floating ocean detritus turn into beautiful images of whales and dolphins when the user enters a meditative state.

McKane’s purpose with LUCiD was to inspire changed attitudes toward the oceans and ecological responsibility, and he’s delving even deeper into that mission using VR in a souped-up version of LUCiD this fall at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from Sept. 21 to Oct. 9.

“There's been a number of researchers who have said VR has the power to create empathy. … I could show you images of what it's like to be in a war zone, and you'd get an idea, but there's still a disconnect,” McKane says. “If all of a sudden you move your head in every direction and you see people looking for water who are all dirty — you see the pain on their faces, and you're with them, feeling what they feel — you're going to have a different perspective.”

McKane is still ironing out the final details of his VR demo in Grand Rapids but he promises that it will be immersive and interactive, either with a five-screen installation or an entire dome. The viewer will progress through the space from the beach to the coffee shop and then see where their disposable coffee cups ended up: in the ocean. The final element is allowing the user to change the experience back into a clean ocean.

“We've created, we think, the world’s first mind-controlled VR system,” McKane says. He doesn’t plan to use headsets with his VR installation, which he says “dehumanize us” because wearers aren’t able to interact.

“I might see something really cool, and I look over at you, but in a VR headset you don't get to see my reaction,” McKane says. “We're using a series of different technologies with projections. You have the ability to have the complete VR experience where we can look at each other and share the same experience. We not only get to experience empathy, but we get to share it with those who are close to us.”

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