Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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VR sculpture is basically performance art

VR sculpture is basically performance art

You go to a museum and see a person with a strange device making odd motions. In the good old days, when art museums had narrower visions of what constituted art, that was a clear sign someone had imbibed a bit too much over lunch. But in the era of performance spaces and installations, who knows if the person is an inebriated spectator or a performer? And maybe that’s good thing, because an impromptu performance can be good even if it’s not officially sanctioned. But this state of affairs makes it hard to parse stories like this one, found on eleVR:

For the past 2 months I have been regularly performing an unsolicited sculptural work at SFMOMA titled “Would you like to see an invisible sculpture?” Let me set the scene:

On the 5th floor of SFMOMA there is a hallway just off the elevators which houses several Lichtenstein prints. The prints are beautiful and colorful and hung in thick glass frames. Across the narrow hallway is a padded bench. I stand facing down the hallway with a headset cradled in my hands asking people passing by, “Would you like to see an invisible sculpture?” That question works better than all the other versions I have tried. It piques the imagination just enough to get people to wait in line and patiently stand while I arrange a heavy and slightly fussy bit of hardware on their heads. But it also sets the scene: audience members are not trying out a fancy new bit of technology but having a viewing experience.

Once their interest is piqued I indicate the person currently wearing the headset and then stand watching intently until they return to me. I remove the headset for them then help the waiting visitor fit it properly. Once it’s on I say “You can walk around, but also inside of the sculpture.” Sometimes I also need to add “To go inside you have to walk straight through the surface.” Many people are physically averse to passing through the exterior skin without encouragement. I took that as a good sign. They were interacting the sculpture with the same schema they would use with any other piece in the museum. I did answer questions about the hardware and the process of making the project when they come up but tried to keep it simple. I want to keep people focused on the performance of whoever can currently see the invisible sculpture.

This could just as easily be a hoax. It isn’t, at least not that I know of, but in substantive terms, it’s hard to tell the difference between performers in headsets and a real VR sculpture. I’m also not sure that distinction matters all that much. (This point would be less contentious if it didn’t come during a national meltdown that somehow involves a conspiracy theory involving a body double for a presidential candidate that, needless to say, is not real.)

From a purely VR perspective, the idea of walking through a sculpture is neat. It can be well executed just as it can be badly executed, but it has potential. That is not, however, what is most interesting about this whole story.

VR is, in theory, a solitary medium. You are, by definition, alone in your headset. There may be other people in a virtual world, but you are not really interacting with people in physical space. VR, however, is also a strangely compelling spectator sport. This is not the use case any company is planning for, because it can’t be monetized effectively, but watching people spin around is fun. It’s almost like dance. That, now that art museums traffic in such things, is quite promising indeed.

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