Virtual Frontiers: The technical limits of VR

Virtual Frontiers is a visual art installation created by Francois Knoetze. It incoporates virtual reality panoramas and sound pieces that explore past and present narratives of Grahamstown (Photo: Megan Kelly/Cue).

Virtual Frontiers is Cape Town artist Francois Knoetze’s third exhibition at the National Arts Festival. In a rather unique experience to festival-goers, Knoetze makes use of Virtual Reality (VR) headsets to tell the stories of the people of Grahamstown. Combined with strange images and animations to create dream-like perspectives, narratives are ripped apart and reshaped to form non-linear narratives.

What makes Virtual Frontiers extraordinary is the use of VR technology as an artistic medium. The headset allows for a complete 360-degree panoramic video, with wearers being able to view every corner of the shot by simply turning their heads. Sound is added within the exhibition space to allow for a complete immersion.

But is it complete immersion?

Spending an afternoon at the installation, I walked out with a headache and a feeling of dissatisfaction with the experience – dissatisfaction stemming not from the exhibition’s content, but rather from the medium that it was utilising.

VR technology is not a new aspect of the digital age. Ideas of being immersed in a virtual reality can be traced back to the 1930s in Science Fiction literature. For example, in Stanley Weinbaum’s 1935 short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”, he describes a set of holographic images being viewed on a set of futuristic goggles, not unlike the VR equipment used in Virtual Frontiers.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, both the private and public sectors toyed with VR technology, being used for military and medical purposes by the former, and as an add-on or form of entertainment by the latter. The technology itself could also be approached in various forms, with people experiencing VR as either accessories to be worn, or in fully-immersive rooms or chambers.

Recently, VR has seen a resurgence in the consumer market: major companies such as Google and Facebook are investing millions of dollars into the technology’s development. Prominent VR products on the market include the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive, with development of the technology now looking to improve the sensory systems of these products, as well as the overall resolution of the projected images.

The application of VR as a medium for visual arts has been experimented with since the 1970s: David Em was the first notable artist to use it for his numerous exhibitions in the United States. Other artists who have explored the emotional and philosophical opportunities that can be had with the medium include Mike Goslin, Char Davies, and Rebecca Allen.

Knoetze’s exhibition is very much a first for South Africa, making use of VR to present an artistic expression of daily lives and experiences. However, there are issues with this medium, namely the absence of additional sensory information being provided to the viewer. The lack of means to fulfill other senses such as smell and touch are to be expected with the current development stage of the technology, but the resolution of the images provided on the headset still suffer due to hindrances on depth perception.

Another issue is the replacement of the viewer’s self-motion with a virtual perception of self-motion, as gyroscopic control has been surrendered to the technology. This potentially results in disorientation, which furthers prevents the viewer from experiencing a completely immersive experience.

So while the content presented on the VR headsets have genuine artistic merit and can be enjoyed as such, they are hindered by the limitations of the medium.

Catch Virtual Frontiers every day from 9am to 5pm at the Albany Science Museum.

By Samuel Spiller