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Spring 2008

| v.04 n.01|

Aesthetics as a Tool: the Resurgence in Virtual Reality

  • Daria Tsoupikova
  • Assistant Professor
  • School of Art and Design
  • Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL)
  • University of Illinois at Chicago

New technologies offer us the chance to merge reality and imagination in the creation of evolutionary, fully embodied, interactive experiences that transform media, culture and the world. Virtual reality, telepresence, haptic devices, advanced networks and surround sound offer greater means to visualize the complexity of the world and create new conceptions of reality and identity.  These new conceptions expand traditional aesthetic principles of art making into other dimensions in depth and time requiring new aesthetic principles.

Virtual reality aesthetics contains elements of animation, design, installation, sculpture, architecture, music, film, and photography from the visual, performing, and spatial arts. Their developmental principles derive from traditional art forms; textures from painting and photography, 3D models from sculpture, animation from film and time-based arts, sound from music, composition and space organization from architecture. New technologies present exciting possibilities for experimentation and unleashed creativity in virtual reality art. There are no limitations of material properties so common to design, sculpture, painting and other traditional arts. There are no limitations of space, time or intended audience such as sculpture installation, a dance recital or film theatre. Through network connections artists can collaborate on projects from different sides of the globe in real time. Space and time can be manipulated interactively and remotely through the network while participant’s physical faculties and emotions can be forced to share common sensational experiences across the globe. The aesthetics of the virtual environment can be orchestrated to control the communicative power of the project, inveigle emotional responses, maximize a sense of immersion and ultimately “presence” in the virtual world.

This text describes the relationship between traditional and digital aesthetics in the virtual reality art project Rutopia 2 built for the CAVE and C-Wall virtual environments. The project explores the aesthetics of virtual art in relation to traditional Russian folk arts and crafts such as wood sculpture, toys and the decorative painting styles of Palekh, Khokhloma, and Dymkovo (Figures 1 & 2). Their crisp easily recognizable style of expression is characterised by generalized outlines, crisp emphasized details, bright colours, subjects, materials, and forms. Rutopia 2 generalizes those aesthetic principles and transmits their culture into virtual reality (Figures 3 & 4). The project studies how the aesthetics can affect the intuitive navigation, perception, and emotional experience of the user inside the virtual environment. Computer graphics techniques used for the real-time development of virtual artwork study how colors and shapes can influence and lead the navigation and interaction of the user in the virtual environment. The research of user’s perception and emotional experience gained from immersion and interaction with aesthetics of the virtual environment teaches that aesthetics can induce and control emotional responses.

Rutopia 2 es a magic garden with interactive sculptural trees. was conceived as a virtual environment linked to a matrix of several other unique virtual environments that together create a shared network community. A series of 3D modular sculptural trees, each consisting of dozens of rectangular screens, appear in the main environment and serve as portals to the other linked environments. Tree shapes can be transformed through rotations or flips, put together or taken apart in different ways. The animation of these dynamic tiled trees is an attempt to break through the static flatness of the contemporary tiled-display grids, architectural facades, and surfaces into the perpetually changing 3D sculptural forms of the ubiquitous public network. Users can “grow three trees in the island world by moving within the proximity of each tree. Each tree appears as a rapid sequence of flipping and rotating rectangular screens expanding out and upward. Once all the trees are fully grown, their screens turn into windows and the island changes from monochrome to color. Each window shows the view of the remote environment connected to it. Just as we can look through a window and see the outside, the user can look through each of the screens to see remote worlds consisting of imagery found in traditional Russian fairytales and folk arty moving his or her head completely through one of the virtual screens, the user enters the connected environments. The project implementation utilized OpenGL Performer, Maya, CAVElib, the Bergen spatialized sound server and the recent improvements and advanced rendering techniques in Ygdrasil.


Figure 1 & 2. Storyboards of Rutopia 2 from original painting inspired by Russian folk arts and crafts. Daria Tsoupikova, 2005.


Figure 3 & 4. Screenshots from the virtual environment in Rutopia 2. Daria Tsoupikova, 2007.

The rich tradition of 2D and 3D art history informs the visual composition, technical and aesthetic evolution of virtual reality environments. Balance, color, repetition and rhythm principles expand into new dimensions in virtual reality and require more planning, work, development time, testing, and evaluation.

In order to have a visually pleasing image the overall scale and the proportion of each element needs to be balanced. By connecting multiple elements through the same properties of color and proportions, one can effectively highlight the connective relationships. Because the human eye tends to lose concentration on details in the moving image proportionally to its speed the time-based moving image requires less detailed artwork. Looking at the fast changing images on the screen, we seek the familiar and common artistic features to understand the overall art style. Thus, each individual moving image must follow the overall style guidelines while permitting a lower level of details.

Color can be successfully used to guide the user by forcing the eye and mind to focus on a specific element, which can be placed in the environment so it contrasts in color or brightness with other elements. Color can manipulate our perception and cognition because our eyes respond to various wavelengths of light, which communicate through various nerve impulses to the brain. When we view a Hokusai woodblock of a Great Wave you are lead from the eyes to the brain in a certain direction through the dynamics of balance and appropriate amounts of positive and negative space (contrast in color, brightness, proportion, and scale), which allows our vision to flow evenly over the image. Paul Klee stated that color may be managed through a general theory of composition in the same way that sound is managed through the framework of musical theory. Therefore color can be used to influence and lead navigation of the user inside the virtual reality. The decorative patterns, bright colors, and simplified 3D shapes can enhance the intuitive navigation in virtual reality. The bright orange decorative roads painted in contrast with the dark terrain colors in Rutopia 2 guide the user in the environment. They lead to the log house where the user receives the ability to fly (Figure 5) and to the island where he can grow trees. In virtual space the element can be both static, while it waits for the user commands, and moving when it is animated through interaction. The compositional and color emphasis in the virtual environment is placed not only in three dimensions: depth, width and height, but also into a certain moment in the project timeline. This adds a need to control its impact range on a time-based sequence. This effect can be orchestrated to control the communicative power of the project and requires a variety of skills from the artist.

Figure 5. The bright orange roads lead the user in Rutopia 2.

Our visual system is capable of achieving sharp focus in approximately a 2 degree arc of vision and a moderately sharp focus in an approximately a 10 degree arc of vision. Beyond that, vision is very sensitive to motion and can discriminate light from dark but has a much lower visual acuity. Thus traditional artworks, such as sculptures and paintings, can be completely inside the sharp focus of vision when we direct an eye on it, the focus is objective and depends on the user’s gaze. In immersed virtual environment; however, the single user is not able to see the whole environment around him with sharp focus, so the focus is subjective and depends on the direction of the gaze of each individual user. Virtual reality artists can use those characteristics to avoid rendering unnecessary level of details, increase efficiency of the application, and to manipulate user’s field of vision. 

Gestalt theory of perception in psychology states that humans tend to seek consistencies among visual elements, which helps to comprehend and interpret sensory information. Since our learning of the new depends on recognition of familiar patterns, artists until the last century used recognizable patterns through the visible appearance of things such as natural elements and human body to expressively communicate ideas. The greater potential of aesthetics in virtual reality is not only to visualize the objective similarities and recreate photorealistic effects, but also to provide interactive activities to discover the meanings of the artistic concepts. Virtual reality can embody an authentic aesthetic experience, sense of “place”, unveil metaphorical meanings and manage feelings, emotions and perceptions to communicate conceptual context. It provides a unique means to highlight and reveal the cause and effect relationships between meaning and the interaction necessary for deeper comprehension. This user-centered approach controls a user's engagement. Through navigation, interaction and user involvement virtual reality can enhance the meaning of the experience, and foster discovery through exploration and sense of presence. In a networked situation visitors can communicate with each other and collaborate on the discovery of metaphors associated with the concept of a project. Another new requirement for a new aesthetic is based upon their physical and psychological influence on the human body inside the virtual reality world. Body movement in the immersive environment can extend to the exploration of design in a more imaginative, unconventional and emotional way.


Daria Tsoupikova: Rutopia 2

Sound by Julien Soleilhac