It was in the ’90s—teenage years for Rossin and Rafman—when virtual reality devices first filled our arcades, movie theaters, and malls. “A lot happened in virtual reality 20 years ago,” says MIT Media Lab’s Mike Lazer-Walker, who works on bringing narrative storytelling to virtual reality platforms. “But at a basic level, the technology wasn’t there yet.” No player of Oregon Trail will recall feeling catapulted into the bumpy back of a 1850s covered wagon, save in their imagination. Nineties computers were far from up to snuff when it came to photorealistic graphics, and early headsets paled in comparison to those of today. Nausea, headaches, and motion-sickness quickly earned early virtual devices a bad rap from green-faced naysayers and faded off into the synthetic, stereoscopic sunset.
Even still, artists were intrigued. In 1995, Canadian artist and virtual reality pioneer Char Davies produced Osmose, an immersive virtual reality experience incorporating interactive 3D computer graphics as well as interactive sound. Donning a head-mounted stereoscopic display and a motion-tracking vest, participants floated through an imagined landscape by breathing in and out. “Upon emerging, some people inexplicably wept,” recalls Davies. For the last five years, the artist has been working on a 3D virtual representation of an immersive, real-life thousand-acre forest—a return to the natural world amid one predicated on screens.
Davies is less bullish about virtual reality’s art-world push than those newer to using VR in their work like Rafman and Rossin. Can it become a dominant artistic medium? “I think a more pertinent question would be: Can artists overcome the inherent biases of the technology, and the profit-driven imperative of the gigantic corporations gathering behind it, to create meaningful, relevant work?” says Davies rhetorically. “Time will tell.”