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Free Pasadena VR Art Show Goes Way Beyond Games

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Most of us still think about virtual reality as a somewhat underwhelming way to experience a video game world -- but exhibition Spatial Reality in Pasadena wants to show it's more than that.


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"I don't feel anger about it, but the latest iteration of VR grew out of its relationship to games and the gaming community," curator Jesse Damiani told us. "But VR is so much bigger than just games. It's so much bigger than just entertainment."

Damiani also works as editor-at-large of VR news site VRScout, so he's in deep when it comes to virtual reality. Damiani's bold prediction? In 10 years, "spatial media" will be how we engage with everything.

"So I get really bummed out, honestly, when people try a game, or a VR music video in a Google Cardboard -- no hate on Google Cardboards obviously -- and they think they've tried the VR," Damiani said. "There are many, many, many other use cases for VR. And one of them is art as we've traditionally conceived it -- capital-A 'Art.'"

What the best VR can deliver is "presence," according to Damiani.

"Presence is the difference between going into an experience and saying, 'I was on a mountain, and I was talking to whoever,' versus, 'This was an experience of a mountain, and my character did X-Y-Z' -- there's a level of remove. So when you've achieved that level of presence -- somebody believes they're there, and feels they're there -- you're mainlined into their lizard brain."


"Hurt Colors" by Nancy Baker Cahill. (Courtesy Spatial Reality)

We walked through the Pasadena showcase featuring the work of dozens of artists, all doing different things within a broad definition of VR. That ranges from experiences involving VR headsets where you go inside an artistic piece or visit a virtual museum, to augmented reality apps that bring 2D pieces to life, to projections mapping onto physical spaces. And that's just the beginning.

"I was trying to grab the art that was superlative expressions of [different types of VR]," Damiani said. "There are five to 20, depending on the realm, equally superlative artists. I was trying to assemble this dream team to whet people's appetite."

"Skull Flowers" by artist Trudy Elmore. (Courtesy Spatial Reality)
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More than 25 artists have work in the show, which includes VR, AR, and mixed reality (MR) -- exhibits that use things like those projections mentioned above. The overarching category is called "XR," for extended reality.

The exhibition also includes 3D-printed objects and 2D prints representing what's inside those virtual worlds, giving a physical fine art representation of this new kind of fine art.


A piece by artist Wesley Allbrook. (Courtesy Spatial Reality)

One of the experiences: bleachers with virtual kelp on them, where you can wave your hands through and watch them be magnetically attracted to your hands.

Exhibits like these are meant to be appreciated without a distinct point to them in the same way you get in a video game or other narrative experience, Damiani said.

"When you see 'the Mona Lisa,'" Damiani said,"you would spend time looking at it, and analyzing it, and living inside that world. You wouldn't be like, 'Where's the plot in 'the Mona Lisa'?'"

Most tickets for the exhibition are free, though you can pay a premium for a VIP experience.

"I wanted there to be a majority of free tickets so that it's democratized who can access it," Damiani said. "Like any other gallery exhibition, the point is to open the doors and show off this stuff."

Spatial Reality includes 13 headsets available for visitors to experience the full VR experiences, and it limits 150 people to each time slot on a day. Those AR apps help to give people opportunities to experience VR art when they're not inside a headset.


Damiani shared the VR experiences he thinks everyone should try, offering a survey of what's out there:

  • Job Simulator by Owlchemy Labs: "It's one of the first experiences that really played with all the ways that you could make a space that would otherwise be mundane really fascinating, by focusing on interaction."
  • Beat Saber: "It's a rhythm game, and it's a rhythm game where you really develop this bodily language that's competitive, and you play to music. Similar to DDR and Guitar Hero. But instead of those games, you're actually using your whole body and moving through space."
  • Superhot VR: "A game in which time moves when you do. So if you stay still, the whole world stays frozen, and when you move or how fast you move, time moves with you. ... It's one of the standout VR games."
  • Evolution of Verse: "That's a 360 video by Within, who at the time went by Verse, that's sort of an homage to the early days of film -- but channeling it for VR."
  • Dear Angelica: It's described by its publisher as "a journey through the magical and dreamlike ways we remember our loved ones" -- and it was entirely hand-painted inside of VR.


"Faces[On]Display" by Can Buyukberber. (Courtesy Spatial Reality)

Having to put on a headset connected to a computer does put some limits on how many people can experience VR right now, but Damiani sees a future where the size and cost of strapping in shrinks dramatically.

"We're in the VHS days of VR. And though VHS is a long way from Netflix, it was the first moment where there was such a thing as at-home movies, at-home television," Damiani said. "I think one day we'll have lightweight enough VR headsets that we'll be able to be at a coffee shop, say 'Oh, we need to go check something out,' strap in, seamlessly integrate into a virtual world together, and then pop back out."

Stories are the atomic building blocks of our lives, according to Damiani.

"This is a medium now that allows you to tell and insinuate stories directly into the mind," Damiani said. "If we can all tell and share better stories, and clearer stories from our own viewpoints, and play with the notion of what reality is, we'll become better as a species."

The exhibition is open on weekends at the Sp[a]ce Gallery from 12-6 p.m., inside advertising agency the Ayzenberg Group's offices. The exhibit includes art from companies represented by the agency, as well as a wide variety from other artists throughout the VR world. The opening is Friday, and it runs through Oct. 28.

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