How virtual reality could take surrealism to the next level

There’s a lot virtual reality can contribute to the growth of digital art, not the least of which is the exploration of impossible environments. Optical illusions and impossible spaces helped shape art, from Brunelleschi’s implementation of geometrical perspective to Escher’s staircases. Interactive illustrator and game designer Daniel Ernst’s ongoing series, The Shoebox Diorama, seems like a first dip into the possibility of surrealism in VR.

Described by Ernst as “fantastical dioramas for the Oculus Rift,” the series features two set-pieces so far. The first was Blocked In, where the player begins in a run-of-the-mill room, with a game of Tetris playing on a computer screen.

But exploring a little further, peeking out the window, the player comes upon a scene that must be every Tetris addict’s worst nightmare: multi-colored blocks falling from the sky. In this reality, you’re not just playing Tetris. You’re living it. The subtitle of the diorama is very appropriately labeled “Tetris Apocalypse.”

The most recent diorama/experience released on June 20th features a less dystopic setting. Der Grosse Gottlieb requires the viewer to sit upon a throne of stacked up chairs before strapping on the Oculus Rift. The premise, or narrative, of this experience is that the viewer built his/her tower of chairs all the way to the sky in order to find some peace of mind. With the stars so tantalizingly close, one might even try to reach out and grab some right out of orbit. But, alas, you can’t take stars from the sky, even in virtual reality. Der Grosse Gottlieb also seeks to explore how physical stimulation effects a virtual reality experience. Aside from the chairs, Der Grosse Gottlieb also utilizes a fan to simulate wind and that chilly, high altitude atmosphere.

The next installment of The Shoebox Diorama is entitled The Pigeon Man, which seems to incorporate a few more game elements than the others in the series. It will center around dialogue decisions in a magical realist context. Every environment will be hand-painted on top of 3D geometry, resulting in a highly detailed and illustrative fantasy space for exploration.