Not convinced? OK. Imagine an exhibit that you could not only walk around and view from multiple angles, but which you could stick your head inside, or which you could turn this way and that while standing in a single position. Imagine artists creating in virtual reality, never having to invest in paint or canvas or metal for sculpting, requiring nothing more than a software or hardware update every few years. And that rush on tickets for the exhibition from the hottest new artistic talent around? Forget waiting in line, or set viewing times. Buy a ticket, strap on your headset, and you can be right in the middle of it. It doesn’t even matter if the actual exhibition is bigger than your living room; it could be thousands of feet wide, and you could travel around it without leaving your couch.

And by the way, this isn’t the future. This is happening now.

Pilcrow SAM VR

In the past few years, virtual reality has exploded into a huge industry. Companies like Facebook, Google, and HTC have all invested in it, and a 2016 Digi-Capital report estimated the market will be worth US$150bn by 2020. Virtual reality was developed by and for game companies, but it wasn’t long before artists began getting in on the act, exploring the potential of the technology in a way that could seriously disrupt the art world.

Damien Gilley is doing just that. The Portland-based artist creates site-specific multi-installation works, and has become enamoured with the potential of virtual reality. “I started playing with it, and was just like, wow,” he says. “I knew immediately that it was something you couldn’t get very easily in art, which is the ability to create a sculptural quality in the digital space.”

Visitors to Specular, Gilley’s installation at Portland’s Hap Gallery, are invited to strap on a headset and view a digital exhibit. What they see is a collection of abstract lines radiating in from all directions, which they can walk around and view from any angle. Gilley isn’t the only one getting in on the act. London creative studio Marshmallow Laser Feast has created virtual reality experiences in São Paulo and in a rural British forest, and the De Rey Gallery in Los Angeles created an exhibition from the works of painter Gretchen Andrew. And if all this sounds a little too pretentious for you, you could always do it yourself. The freely-available Tilt Brush app — made, with some inevitability, by Google — allows you to create your own drawings and paintings in a virtual space.

Of course, if you’re doing it professionally, you need some slightly better tools. Initially, Gilley used Tilt Brush, but ran into an unexpected problem. “In Tiltbrush, if you make a mark, it looks good, but if you look at it from the side it appears flat.”

The two-dimensional marks wouldn’t do, so Gilley turned to creative agency Dot Dot Dash, who helped him build a bespoke tool. When he used it, anything he created in the virtual space would look good from any angle. “We made ours have stroke weight,” he says. “They also made it possible for me to navigate beyond the space, up and down, even below the floor, so I could move around.”

Pilcrow HTC Virtual Reality
Image via HTC

Anyone who straps on a virtual reality headset for the first time, possibly to try games like the shooter Space Pirate Trainer or the sword-based Ninja Trainer, will come to two conclusions very quickly. One, that the sense of space and scale is incredible, and two, that the technology is still clearly in its infancy. Right now, there are still cracks in the facade of any game, including the difficulty of interacting with elements in a physical space — not something that comes naturally to anybody used to holding a control pad. With artworks, that largely falls away. There are still technological limitations, such as the fact that most virtual reality systems are a little grainy, but the potential is huge.

Gilley, for one, agrees that it signals a massive shift in the definition of art. “I believe that’s true,” he says. “I believe there are a lot of things that are going to develop with this that will blow our minds. This stuff has that possibility. One of the most interesting things about it is that it’s portable. It can be set up in any area, so an exhibition can happen anywhere. And no matter how small the space, the actual exhibition can be a thousand feet wide. They can teleport themselves to different parts of the art, while staying in the same room.”