What (artistic) future for Oculus Rift

Judging by the general enthusiasm, virtual reality headsets signal the beginning of a new era. However the Oculus Rift, a symbol of this often fantasy technology, is still far from winning over fairs. Meeting needs, adapting to existing uses and creating appropriate content are amongst the many challenges for the Oculus Rift. In a sector lacking in structure artists also have a role to play.

At the end of the 19th century, with “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” by the Lumière brothers, spectators screamed seeing a steam locomotive heading towards them. A century later, the Oculus Rift renews the element of surprise.


As those who have been able to test this new generation virtual reality headset will tell you: it’s difficult to remain indifferent towards it. François Martelot, one of the makers affiliated to the cantines numériques (digital Cantines network), is among the first to use DK1 – the Oculus Rift Development Kit version 1. “Immersion is complete and the effect is striking. It’s a technological revolution,” he explains with great enthusiasm.

South Park in real life

This revolution benefited from a media buzz and left an impression on the general public. Tribute paid by the South Park series is a sign of the mark the Oculus Rift has made on popular culture. It must be said that the first Oculus Rift prototype has the advantage of being launched in 2013, earlier than its rivals Morpheus (Sony) or HoloLens (Microsoft), hence this astounding popularity. 

Left: HoloLens by Microsoft will display interactive holograms in the real world.
Right: Morpheus by Sony will be available for beginning of 2016.

At first glance, this excitement suggests a huge potential for development. This cannot be denied, particularly as Facebook bought Oculus VR, owner of Oculus Rift headsets, for 2 billion dollars. Some say the virtual reality market is estimated at several tens of billions in future decades. But in reality its potential for development is difficult to determine due to a lack of structure in the market.

What are VR headsets for?

Indeed there are few existing needs for them and speculation is no mean feat. For a long time the industrial sector for example, has made VR (virtual reality) a key point of focus in R&D. Since 2007 Dassault Systèmes has specialised in 3D modelling and on designing a simulator. In 2003 this subsidiary of the French giant created 3DEXCITE, an immersive visualisation service used in the automobile and aeronautics sector. These tailor-made universes meet the specific needs of onerous technical specifications, but for its part, the Oculus Rift does not respond to a formal demand.

Most of the apps and content still need inventing. The transmedia project “La chambre de Kristoffer” presented at Laval Virtual 2015 (International Conference and Exhibition of Virtual Technologies and Uses), called upon the spectator to evolve in the shoes of a young 7-year old boy.

La chambre de Kristoffer - 2014  

This 360° environment attracted the interest of designers, curious about the idea of entering a child’s world, to improve its ergonomics. A priori, the Oculus Rift seems now to address niche sectors whose needs have been identified. In the medium term certain sectors could nonetheless adapt it such as tourism, architecture, health, the music industry (as shown by the promising virtual concert by the artist Patrick Watson produced by Felix & Paul Studios and the video game industry...

Strangers with Patrick Watson is a cinematic virtual reality experience 360 ° inviting the audience in the studio of a musician

A boom in VR gaming?

A boom in VR headsets is promised in the gaming world. However while publishers are already announcing the launch of the first compatible games, the applications are yet to be designed. In the middle of the 90s, manufacturers tried to integrate VR headsets into their consoles. In addition to the prices that were considered excessive, the Nintendo Virtual Boy and the Atari Jaguar VR were unable to gain public recognition due to non-compliance with practices at the time.

Comparison of virtual reality helmets in the Gen 4 magazine

It is perhaps no coincidence that the Oculus Rift first appeared in amusement arcades, where gamers indeed look for immersive experiences, symbolised by all kinds of simulators in the past. At home the deal is different: is it really that natural to wear a headset? Are users ready to put up with the discomfort and austere aesthetics of the equipment? Do they want to physically isolate themselves from the people surrounding them?

Usually in the field of innovation, technology responds to a need. It links in with existing uses. Yet the Oculus Rift, following the example of Google Glass, already exceeds these needs and does not fit into our daily practices. The development of VR headsets therefore depends on the ability to create apps that correspond with our uses.

What role does creativity play?

In this context artists obviously have a role to play. Their creations and misappropriations cast a critical eye and question our social relationships vis-à-vis technology. Therefore we can assume that VR headsets have already widely entered creative environments, especially digital arts where the question of reality and virtual is a recurring theme. This is far from being the case and works are rare, just like festivals that programme them, that integrate this technology. The collective BeAnotherLab’s project The Machine To Be Another is perhaps one of the best artistic success stories.

Gender Swap - Experiment with The Machine to Be Another from BeAnotherLab 

This performative installation, awarded an Honorary Mention from Ars Electronica in 2014, explores the relationships of identity and extension of the virtual body by inhabiting someone else’s body. Synchronising their movements, two people equipped with cameras and the Oculus Rift experience something new in someone else’s shoes.

Another good example, at the last EXIT festival (read article) the choreographer Blanca Li presented a 360° installation in which the equipped visitor found themselves in the middle of a work meeting.

Watch Blanca Li 360° HERE

The movement, the soaring and acrobatics of the actors progressively structured a video created specifically for a main viewer. The Spanish artist, accustomed to questioning dance through technology (and vice versa), thus established a new scope for expression onto her art. In spite of several other fine projects the Oculus Rift is actually an untapped market.

In the virtual reality space at the Home Cinema exhibition at the EXIT festival   © JBluneau

To measure this small artistic production the technical aspect of the Oculus Rift must be analysed. The heart of the explanation does not lie in the low screen resolution, or in the motion sickness  effects felt during early use, these faults will be eliminated. On the other hand, there is no gestural interface linked to the headset so far. The result is that in virtual reality, apart from any ad hoc development, it is not possible to see your hands, arms or body or to have any self-awareness. In addition it is impossible to connect several headsets in a single universe. There is no interaction with other users, or with the real world (the isolated user loses any contact with reality. Without these developments, already anticipated in the Never Blind in VR project (as part of the Passion for Innovation programme by Dassault Systèmes), artistic enterprise is limited and the Oculus Rift could remain an enhanced video tool.

Never Blind in VR

The interest amongst creators is however real. As Simon Papon, designer and organiser of the meet-up Nantes Réalité Virtuelle confirms: "In Nantes, 140 of us - architects, developers, graphic designers and designers gather to discuss and share our experience of VR headsets. At the beginning we met once a month but now the demand is so great that we have a fortnightly meeting".

Furthermore, the low cost announced of the Oculus Rift (about 300 dollars) and the little expertise required to use it will help in the headset being adopted. The forthcoming opening of a Processing library (a collection of open source shared codes) devoted to the Oculus Rift will mark a new phase in the creative cycle. Those who do not have the time to develop will soon have the freedom to copy, modify and improve existing codes. This is an incredible opportunity for artists who will have the opportunity to prove that the future of VR headsets is closely linked to their creations.

Rédaction Adrien Cornelissen