On an otherwise mundane Thursday morning, I’m staring up at the ceiling in my living room. But instead of the usual generic popcorn ceiling of my apartment, I see this giant, tessellated 3-D alien structure that’s undulating like a set of hydra heads on a mountain of extraterrestrial bosoms.
“This must be what it’s like to do DMT,” I say out loud, regretting some of my life choices (or lack thereof), as I peer out the side of my VR headset.
Daniel Landau lets out a laugh. “Yes,” he says with a nod as he guides me through one of the many virtual rooms. An Israeli-born artist and the first professor of a class dedicated solely to virtual reality at UCLA's media and design school, Landau has come over to my place to demo a project by Inception, a VR company that has taken a massive group art exhibition on the films and unrealized projects of Stanley Kubrick and converted that physical art project into a 360 VR experience.
If anything might help coax consumers to dive en masse into the woolly world of VR, it’s got to be Kubrick, right? Kubrick is our culture's most fetishized dead director. His works — from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Shining and even Eyes Wide Shut — have inspired endless online debates, analyses on YouTube and countless pieces of merchandise and art, from socks that look like the Overlook Hotel's carpeting to an exhibit of art dedicated to A Clockwork Orange. There appears to be an insatiable demand for anything related to the director's oeuvre, perhaps because he was generally so averse to publicity and made relatively few films in the last 30 years of his life.
Kubrick is shorthand for our reckoning with the subconscious and exploring the depths of symbology — he is metaphysical bae.
So this immersive VR project creates a simulacrum of the Somerset House, the neoclassical behemoth the size of a small town sitting on the Thames where the “Daydreaming With Kubrick” exhibition was mounted in 2016. British musician James Lavelle of UNKLE fame spearheaded the show, which featured notable names from the worlds of the visual and aural arts.
As I creep around this 360 space full of art installations in various rooms and hallways, the effect is somewhat like being immersed in a Kubrick set, viewing these interior spaces with this fluid authorial camera. After a few minutes it becomes a bit disorienting, but not in a queasy sort of way. Instead, it’s this kind of fuzzy feeling of flight.
“Inception,” Landau pipes in, “set out to be one of the first players … that try to create meaningful content with this new language.” There’s the (other) dreaded C word, and as irritating as the term is, it’s at this point that Landau starts getting at the main problem facing not just VR, 360, 3-D and augmented reality but media as a whole: a dearth of engaging content for which people are willing to pay good money to invest in hardware. But especially for this seemingly new format.
But the idea of virtual reality is not new at all. “I start with the Plato’s Cave allegory,” Landau insists. “You know virtual reality was a term that a French theater maker actually termed for creating reality onstage. But I think it's the ’90s where there was actual display technologies that started to ignite imagination and what it could be.” In addition to VR tech not being affordable to consumers at the time, the ’90s saw a struggle with what to actually use the tech for, just as we’re seeing now. But this time, it appears the funding and technology are being spread out in many directions in what is generally considered a fertile period of speculation and experimentation.
Competition is tough, because speculators are hoping VR content can compete not only with film and television but with all media and entertainment. We’re deep in the chicken-egg game of there being not enough consumer demand and not enough “killer content” for them to devour. The truth is that in 2017 there still just aren’t that many pieces of VR hardware out there in average consumer households at the moment.
Landau thinks that within two years, consumers will start adopting the tech on a more wide-scale level and that some of these productions will hit the average people out there. Besides that, he’s been focusing on the core criticisms of VR as a whole: “There are too many steps to follow to experience a VR piece. The setup and bandwidth are not there yet. And the resolution of screens has to improve, too.” He thinks these logistic and technological kinks will be smoothed out in the next 18 months. Until then, it’s a gold rush to see who can strike that galvanizing Serial- or Pokemon Go–level moment first.
I’m not rushing out to buy a VR headset this weekend or anything, but if there’s more stuff in this direction, with perhaps more for me to physically explore or engage with, maybe one day I will. And they’d do well to build on the work of other great artists who, like Kubrick, confronted the nature of perception. Otherwise we're just stuck with Snapchat.