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Putting the ‘AR’ in Art

Before Nintendo and PlayStation became household staples for middle-class American gamers, there were the arcades of the late 70s and early 80s. For many of that era, games like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders were first experienced as big blinking machines that sucked up your spare change. The Arcade’s Golden Era came to a close towards the late 90s, when home consoles (and later personal ones) dominated. Today in my home city, arcades are making a comeback, but this time with a modern update.

At the newly opened House of VR, patrons are invited to experience new realities. The virtual reality arcade located at 639 Queen Street West in Toronto is on a mission to foster the adoption of emerging technologies. “The stat we heard was that over 90% of Canadians have not tried VR, so we want to put a dent in that,” says Jonah Brotman, co-founder of House of VR. At the arcade, customers can try traditional VR as well as green screen VR, which superimposes users into the game so family and friends can watch. The pairing of the green screens with TV screens showing a player’s activity makes the otherwise isolating experience of stapping on a headset and entering a new world a much more social one.

It’s not just virtual reality that House of VR is introducing to audiences. On August 1ST, the playroom unveiled Prosthetic Reality, an augmented reality art exhibit inviting the public to engage with art in a new way. “For those who don’t know, the main difference between virtual and augmented reality is that with VR you put on a headset and escape to a different world, whereas with AR you see additional realities in your existing world,” Brotman explains. For the exhibit, which is on until August 15th, attendees must download the smartphone app Eyejack, which enables the AR experience. While the artworks on the walls are interesting as standalone pieces, with augmented reality, they’re able to come to live with colour, animation, and even sound.

If you’re having trouble picturing what that looks like, check out this neat video from EyeJack that shows how the app is able to use image-recognition technology to act as a trigger for the animation inside the camera of the app. Users are also able to record what they’re seeing for sharing on social media.

Prosthetic Reality is a collaboration with SUTU, an artist and the creator of the Eyejack app, as well as 30 artists from around the world. The exhibit is also supported by Crayola Crayons, who helped transform House of VR’s pillow lounge into an augmented reality colouring zone featuring Colour Alive 2.0, Crayola’s AR colouring kit.

House of VR isn’t the only exhibit in Toronto where you can experience augmented reality art. Recently, the Art Gallery of Ontario (or AGO to locals) unveiled Reblink, an AR exhibit encouraging audiences to engage with art in an entirely new way. For the exhibit, the AGO teamed up with digital artist Alex Mayhew and his team at Impossible Things to create layers that can be added on top of the art and experienced through a tablet or smartphone. Old paintings, such as The Marchesa Casati, are given a modern update. Look through the lens of the app and the Marchesa—who was the Kim Kardashian of her time—is now taking her own picture with a selfie stick.

While both exhibits leverage AR, the impacts are different. Reblink creates a conversation about the relationship between physical and digital, between old and new. With its psychedelic animations and dream-like imagery, Prosthetic Reality stimulates acid trip. Digital designer SUTU and the artists showcased alongside him seem to be gesturing to the many realities that are available to us if we only look through the right lens. In a world of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” certainty has never been so contested. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that AR is emerging as an artform that’s able to capture the slippery and subjective nature of reality.

Prosthetic Reality is on at House of VR until August 15th. Learn more about the exhibit here. 

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