Realism or Reality: The Rise of Mixed Reality in Art
Published Mon 23 April | by By Deanne Sheldon-Collins
There’s a common misconception that art and science are mutually exclusive. How often do we value art based only on its aesthetic impact, and technology only in terms of its functionality? Yet art can be political, interactive, challenging; technology can be entertaining, decorative, joyous. And as technology develops, it unlocks new ways of creating and experiencing art.
Artificial reality has gradually emerged from the realm of science fiction, and three key types are increasingly common: Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Realities (MR). VR has been around in various forms for decades—or, arguably, centuries—but the technology as we think of it today is an immersive escape into lifelike, constructed worlds, using computer generation and headsets.
AR and MR, by contrast, bring virtual elements into the real world. These technologies layer digital creations onto physical surroundings, influencing the user’s senses to give the impression that the creations are really there. A well-known recent example of AR is the game Pokémon Go, which projects virtual creatures onto real-life locations via portable devices. Users interact with the animations as if they’re part of the surrounding landscape, a fusion of imagination and reality that made the game explosively popular when it launched in 2016.
VR, AR, and MR are in use across a multitude of fields, from medicine to archaeology to gaming. They also have a growing place in the creative sphere of the arts. Visual art ranges from abstract to hyper-real; it’s a space where reality meets interpretation. VR, by contrast, is a reconstructed version of reality. Even when they carry us into fictional worlds, VR and AR are rooted in realism—they’re designed to make the impossible feel real. What, then, happens when artificial reality meets artistic interpretation?
‘Augmented Reality allows us to superimpose virtual material into our environment,’ says Melbourne-based multimedia artist and technologist Marc-O-Matic. ‘It enabled me to extend beyond just a static drawing, allowing me to add additional depth and storytelling layers … whilst preserving the original visual style and aesthetic.’
The adage goes that a picture tells a thousand words. Marc-O-Matic’s Moving Marvels exhibition takes this idea to the next level, inviting audiences to unlock three-dimensional stories hidden within two-dimensional drawings. The artist’s illustrations become animations when viewed through a specially designed app, revealing details in a virtual world that exists somewhere between device and page.
‘Drawing creates shape and form, animation creates movement, and Augmented Reality adds dimension and interaction,’ says Marc-O-Matic, who has always loved working with tactile media such as ink and watercolours. ‘When these areas are combined it allows audiences to engage with the living work in an intimate and adventurous manner, giving viewers the freedom to move around and explore and reveal hidden layers to the art.
Melbourne-based artist and academic Troy Innocent approaches MR in a different but complementary way. Rather than incorporating realistic animations into physical artworks, Innocent uses abstract art to explore physical landscapes.
‘I’ve always been interested in exploring art and technology to create systems and experiences of alternate realities,’ says Innocent, ‘other ways of being, different ways of seeing the world that are not anthropocentric.’
Innocent’s work explores the idea of ‘playable cities’, and his RE:CODE exhibition uses MR to transform Melbourne into a giant playground. He dubs his work ‘a transmedia ecology’, which includes ‘all of the entities that make up a city—the people, the infrastructure, networked devices, informal codes, institutional rules, architecture, urban design.’
Innocent explores similar themes through his Wayfinder Live game—an installation with a tie-in app, which uses geometric codes to guide players through a city. Developed in Melbourne, the game is touring the world, and Innocent has plans to adapt it for Dublin, Liverpool, London, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam. Though interactive gaming experiences, Innocent’s installations are also pieces of art, which comment on their environment by becoming an active part of it.
‘Expect augmented paintings, murals, graffiti, tattoos, museum blurbs, plaques and sculptures that come to life to reveal deeper layers of meaning to the works,’ says Marc-O-Matic of the future of art, and that’s only the start. ‘Like a paint brush or a camera, Mixed Reality technologies in creative expression will serve as another tool in the box and an extension of the artist’s abilities … As the technology influences society we’ll expect to see future generations of artists as hybrids between creatives and technologists.’
What is the purpose of art? There’s no single answer to this question, but that we ask it reflects the very fact that art encourages us to think. Innocent hopes that ‘art in mixed realities can give people the language to be able to see and decode these processes [of urban design] and make their own decisions – or build their own alternate worlds.’ Marc-O-Matic predicts that, with creative technologies evolving and becoming more accessible, AR and VR art will become ‘as common and mainstream as photography or film’, with ‘an explosion of next generation artists harnessing immersive tech in their work.’
As we move towards a world defined by the artificial – where fuel, food, intelligence, and even reality itself can be synthetic – we’ll ask more and more questions about what is real and what it means to be human. These are questions we already through art, so it’s fitting that art itself is blurring the borders of reality.