Virtual Reality and Art

Virtual reality has taken the world of technology by storm and each day it continues to expand and develop. So what is this impressive technological innovation that has everyone talking?

In technical terms, virtual reality is described as a computer generated 3D environment that allows the viewer to explore, engage and interact within the simulated surroundings. The person has become a part of the virtual environment thus allowing the viewer to operate and perform actions in the artificial ‘world’.

Virtual reality allows you to encounter near-reality experiences, and the idea of being ‘transported’ to a completely different environment by simply placing on a headset seems to be an exciting concept to people. It’s sort of bewildering, yet intriguing, and most people are keen to try it. But now we are seeing a fusion between the world of art and virtual reality. It seems to be becoming another way of artists expressing themselves and this got us thinking on our quick visit to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) after one of our business meetings.

What captured our attention most whilst walking through the compelling rooms of the NPG were the three-dimensional portrait sculptures, and being animators and creators, that got us thinking about the concept of virtual reality. One of the artworks included an early example of 18th-century Chinese portrait sculpture of Joseph Collet created by the Chinese artist Amoy Chinqua. Collet, who served as Governor of Madras, sent the completed portrait to his daughter Elizabeth in 1716 with the description of ‘a sort of Picture or Image of myself’. He further describes his portrait that the proportions of his body and habit were very accurate but the complexion not so much.

Chinqua has incorporated some features found in Chinese art within the intricate details of the sculpture. The pronounced curls of his hair slightly reflect water waves similar to that found in Chinese art. The combination of red, black and gold are a common colour scheme generally used in Chinese culture and art. Red corresponds with fire, symbolising wealth and joy, whilst black is regarded as the colour of Heaven. Gold, sometimes used as a replacement to yellow signifies luck and is considered to be the most prestigious colour. Amoy has clearly used these three colours to not only reflect his originality but also to portray the wealth and fortune of Collet.

So how does this relate to virtual reality?

Although today virtual reality is computer generated, portrait sculptures such as Joseph Collet’s could be early example forms of virtual reality. The 360-degree portrait sculpture combines illusion and reality together offering the viewer a ‘near-reality’ experience. For Elizabeth, her father’s portrait sculpture must have allowed her to interactively engage and experience this almost ‘near-reality’ experience on a new level.

Of course, in those times there was no sort of technology; no way of being able to see someone digitally and no photographs (apart from 2D painted portraits) so perhaps having a 3D sculpture of a person was unique and exciting, a similar concept to virtual reality today. And so it occurred that having a portrait sculpture was perhaps their equivalent of having some sort of ‘virtual reality’; you’re able to view and interact with something so lifelike but it is not actually real.

So where does this leave us? According to Information Age, virtual reality will be a part of everyday life over the next five to tenyears. So one thing we know for certain that this isn’t the end of any technical advancements. Virtual Reality is already progressing, and we can be sure to see more technological innovations stepping into the future. Who knows what the future will bring? Perhaps the next ‘virtual reality’ portrait will develop into something much more lifelike such as hologram images, similar to something seen in the 1977 Star Wars movie. The flickering blue translucent hologram message delivered by Princess Leia created future possibilities for the advancement of technology and it was also a breakthrough in what could be achieved in filmmaking. Star Wars is a great example of a film that was ahead of its time in terms of technology. It demonstrates extreme technical advancements that have now become an influence on future developments.

The three-dimensional moving image was something sensational that demonstrated advances limited by our imaginations. Today, holograms are developing, and perhaps in the future, we will see holograms embedded in our everyday lives just like virtual reality. From 2D paintings to 3D sculpture portrait figures, our next portrait sculpture could potentially be a hologram. With this being said, although technology has vastly developed, the use of clay is still being utilised in movies to produce the base form of characters and creatures. In the original Star Wars, the monsters and weapons along with other effects were produced with clay, rubber and foam latex to create illusions. So although technology has taken over a considerable amount and will continue to do so, clay is still used as a template for films. But with so many advancements in technology, who knows what the future will bring?

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