Today we're with Martin Eklund, the co-founder of Space Plunge, a Swedish company with a passion for arts and virtual reality. They're also the creators of Art Plunge, a virtual reality (VR) experience that lets you explore famous paintings. When did you start Art Plunge, and what was the initial impetus?
We started working on Art Plunge more than a year ago but have been working on and off on the project. Like many others, I have always been fascinated by classic paintings and the way they are represented, reinterpreted and remixed. Around late 2013 I was excited to see the reactions of the initial Oculus Rift prototype, the excitement was all about the prospect of virtual reality finally being "good enough" and available on a larger scale. When I tested out my Oculus DK2, it was clear to me that input and movement was going to be problematic for some time, but presence is there and it is already powerful. With limited movement, I felt there was potential in spending more time on texturing and thinking about the creation process more like a 3D painting than an interactive game. A lot of VR experiences I tried looked flat, or looked like dated video games. This is for a reason, VR needs to render everything twice, once for each eye, then warp the images to account for the distortion of the lenses, and on top of that also keep a higher frame rate than an average game. At some point I started working on Mona Lisa, I thought it was a good concept and that it could be great if done right, but I did not want to do it alone, so nothing more happened until I found out Christensen might be free to do this project together.
What is the division of labor between you and your partner, Martin Christensen? Does one focus more on the creative aspects and the other on tech? Have you worked together before?
We try to be equals in the overall design of the experience, we both have strong opinions regarding sense of space, imagery, color and sound. It can be a struggle, but I think the best ideas win most of the time. We have worked together on multiple projects before, short films, music videos, theater and a small game. The work is divided in the way that Christensen do all character animation and almost all modeling, and I do all programming and sound.
How does it exactly work? Can you take us through the experience of it (although, of course, words can't do it justice)?
You start out in a dim gallery, in front of you are a few paintings in simple dark frames. Behind you are big slanted windows and you can see the earth in the distance. As if you are in a gallery on the moon. With a magic gesture, you can enter a painting. The canvas starts dissolving, revealing the inner world of the painting behind it. The painting seem to dissolve into a black fog that surrounds you and finally turns into a tunnel, which sends you deeper into the world of the painting. You are now immersed in a tranquil world that is alive and slowly breathing, and you can feel the presence of the characters and the environment. You can stay here as long as you like. Behind you is the dark fog waiting, like a portal back to the gallery on the moon.
What do you hope is the result of the experience? Provoke curiosity? A great appreciation of the artsand art history? Rethink iconic imagery?
I think we are drawn to virtual reality to contribute to the early exploration of the medium, where the conventions are not yet as defined compared other mediums like film. We try to make what we ourselves would like to experience. I hope our reinterpretation of these classics will be enjoyed, and that they can give a sense of wonder. By doing this I think we both show appreciation of the original works and contribute to the arts of our own time.
What are the paintings you're going to start with? Why did you choose them? Is licensing an issue from you?
We're starting with Mona Lisa, The Creation of Adam (Sistine Chapel fresco) and the Vermeer painting "Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window". The most obvious criteria here is fame, it is fun to see something familiar in a new way and it's also fun for us to interpret. Another thing we think about is the mood, we try to choose images that can be interpreted to have a natural stillness. We have avoided paintings where the brush strokes are large, but this does not mean we are not interested in those, it's just that we want to do those using a more complicated method. We have avoided works that are still copyrighted so far, but we hope to reinterpret some more recent works eventually.