Challenges in Virtual Reality 

The landscape of early virtual reality adoption and integration is exciting as tools and methods emerge and change on a constant basis. At the same time, a stable and consistent ecosystem has solidified which allows for adoption and use today. In the following post I will point out the current challenges of VR. For each challenge there are best practices to keep in mind that can mitigate shortcomings.


The price point for a complete VR setup has effectively been cut in half within the last year thanks to Facebook / Oculus’ effort to get a billion users into VR. Once the system is obtained, there still exists the need for a computer with sufficient graphics and processing power to run it. Oculus has worked hard to optimize on the software side to drive minimum spec computer requirements down to more affordable levels. 

Despite these efforts, the purchase of a VR system and computer rig to run it is an investment. It really is a matter of perspective as the combined cost would still be less than an Apple laptop or other digital equipment you might consider for your practice. 

An important element to keep in mind is the cost of VR art apps is extremely reasonable once you are setup. Oculus Medium and Quill sculpting / painting apps come free with VR system activation. Additionally, Google Blocks is also free and apps such as Tilt Brush often go on sale for around $10. 


It’s important to keep in mind that VR equipment is very technical and may not be conducive to working with certain populations out of the box. There can be accommodations made and these may require some augmentation and adjustment to several features such as the headset and hand controllers. Click to hear a great talk from Oculus Connect 2017 on creating accessible content in VR for more people around the world. 

In general, art therapy session time constraints can become a factor when working with virtual reality. It’s useful to conduct an initial session where you introduce the equipment to potential consumers and get them comfortable and adjusted for future VR art-making. In subsequent sessions the client should be able to get setup and finish as easy as setting up and cleaning up traditional art materials. 

Area Tracking

Some VR setups are considered roomscale which means the user is tracked throughout a large space and can walk around freely. Realistically, most people don’t have the space for this in their offices or studios. These space constraints may be problem for VR experiences that are created for the user to traverse a large distance by walking.

Fortunately, to make VR artwork you only need a minimum tracked space where you can take a step or two in each direction. Tilt Brush was originally created as a roomscale experience without the ability to manipulate the art. This led to comical scenes of people standing on chairs to paint large / tall pieces. All VR art apps (Tilt Brush included) now have the ability to move, scale, and rotate the artwork along with teleporting around the VR space if the piece gets too big. 


It can be quite stressful when something goes wrong when using technology. The difficult aspect of VR in this regard is that their are a lot of moving parts. Because of this it is hard sometimes to track down the culprit of an error since it could be any number of factors. Oculus provides users with many straight forward, user friendly tools to diagnose and make adjustments to equipment.

During a session the most common correction that needs to be made is to the sensors if tracking is lost. There is an option to easily walk through resetting if needed. Usually a best bet is to restart the virtual reality software and sometimes reboot the computer. Most of the issues have to do with getting the user initially calibrated to fit properly with the headset and comfortable. 


The cardinal rule of virtual reality is don’t make the user sick. Simulation / motion sickness occurs if the frame can’t catch up and render the virtual world every time the user moves their head. Oculus has built in special algorithms into their software to compensate for dropped frames. Sometimes latency can occur due to computer lag / overworking or sensors being occluded by the users body and not being able to track. All of these factors are good to keep in mind and can be addressed. For example, keeping the computer cool and making sure sensors are picking up user movement.


When getting around in VR it’s important that the user’s head remains the camera at all times. Any kind of effort to take control of the user’s point of view results in sim sickness. VR app developers have tried many different methods of getting the user around in VR space. The smoothest ways of doing this are a natural 1:1 walking action or a teleportation technique. Walking around naturally works great but doesn’t allow for larger distances. Once the user needs to travel further, the teleport option is a great complement. Most VR art apps use the combination of both.

Interaction with Client in VR

Once the client has the headset on and is in VR, it’s important for the therapist to have a way of seeing what is happening in the space. Having a second VR setup that the therapist can utilize to enter into virtual reality is ideal but may be prohibitive in regards to cost and space. I currently use a projector to see a large representation of what the client is experiencing in virtual space. Troubleshooting equipment and relaying technical information are easier when both therapist and client are in VR together. Making 3rd hand interventions and response art are also much more intuitive and effective when working this way. 

Data Processing

Working with 2D digital art tools doesn’t require too much concern in regards to processing power and bandwidth given today’s computers and internet connection.  It's also straight forward to save digital art files, backup, and email and it doesn't require much storage space. With VR there is much more data being transmitted due to the amount of processing it takes to render graphical virtual worlds and interactive elements. Since VR is stereoscopic, both eyes need to be rendered essentially doubling the amount of data. Cloud solutions may open up in the near future but for now be prepared for crashes and latency issues. When adding the complexity of multiple people coexisting and creating art  in the same virtual space, much more online bandwidth is needed to make a seamless experience.

Privacy / Informed Consent

Privacy concerns are similar to considerations that need to be made when working with any digital format. Virtual reality art files that are produced by clients need to be stored in a safe and secure location. Creating a password protected folder that is only accessible to the therapist is a good practice. Clients may be interested in sharing their work online so that it can be viewed by others with a Google Cardboard or headset. Reviewing the Art Therapy Credentials Board section 2.2 is a good practice before recording, publishing, or displaying any client work. 

Informed consent is also important before the client enters into VR. Oculus' health and safety warning is a good guideline for discussing the risks and possible side effects of VR use such as simulation sickness. There are many examples of wavers with all of the information available online.  

Therapeutic Qualities of Virtual Reality

When using VR tools for therapeutic engagement, certain characteristics stand out as unique by virtue of the inherent properties that emerge from being in VR. The ability to identify these attributes allows the art therapist to leverage and consciously create conditions and directives that play into the strengths of VR.  

Presence / Immersion in VR Space

The most compelling attribute of virtual reality is the sense of being viscerally present / immersed in a distinct place. By donning the VR headset, clients enter another space without distraction. The elements of attention and concentration on the task at hand are enhanced. Feeling absorbed in an environment containing only tools, materials, and an infinite canvas is ideal for art creation. 

VR can act as spatial container, offering a safe haven and refuge for rehearsing new behaviors. Having the headset on creates an intimate space that can facilitate therapeutic transformations infinitely more personalized, nuanced, and malleable than being confined to the material space of the office or studio.

A scene from the client’s life or possible scenarios / concerns can be created with VR art tools then inhabited, rearranged, and transformed. Externalizing internal parts, emotions, and feelings along with memories can also be explored in this way.   

The VR space can potentially act as a holding / facilitating environment that  exhibits characteristics of a mothering womb. Synesthetic feedback can transmit a sense of repair and re-patterning of early attachment wounds. Apps such as Tilt Brush allow for a dynamic movement of brushstrokes which can be synchronized to a nurturing sound such as a heartbeat through use of audio reactive brushes. 

Shared VR Space

The next feature of VR that is powerful in shaping therapeutic connection is to share virtual reality space with another or group. For art therapists, this allows the practitioner to enter consumer’s artwork and bare witness to its creation. This can include watching the client create the work in 360 volumetric space. Once the art is complete, therapist and client can experience, occupy, and journey into the artwork together.  

Some VR apps allow the possibility for multiple individuals to participate in art-making within the same virtual space. This setup creates options for shared collaboration in the form of an art therapy group or open studio approach. Right now the options for self image / creating a virtual avatar for self representation are limited in VR art apps. As additional features are added, how you present yourself in the virtual art space adds an additional layer of self expression. 


When you are present in a virtual space at true 1:1 human scale there is a strong visceral effect in regards to size. Every object and brushstroke is self referential and can be manipulated to be tiny or enormous. 

Clients may want to scale an image of a challenging person, situation, or environment down to fit safely in the palm of their hand. Conversely, they may scale a VR representation of themselves up large to feel more agency and power. The fact that scale becomes immediately malleable can be a potent force in the therapeutic art process. 

Scale is also important in regards to the size of the actual VR artwork. The client can create an entire world over various sessions which can span huge distances. Various apps contain a teleport option to travel around work that is too big to walk around. Viewers can be invited to explore and discover rather than just look and observe. 

Body Movement / Interaction / Self Image

Unlike other media, VR deals explicitly with becoming more fully present as an actively engaged participant. Creating art in virtual reality is very gestural, the user immediately feels their body fully involved in the art-making process. There is a sense that you are physically part of the artwork or that it is an extension of your form. Clients can engage in embodied cognitive activity, reinforcing growth and change in a holistic way.

The ability to have your hands within virtual space opens up huge possibilities  therapeutically. Moving, holding, and manipulating objects is extremely intuitive and lifelike. Performing these actions digitally on a 2D screen contains a level of abstraction that disengages the user from the creation process. To hold a tool or object and manipulate it in space feels direct and lifelike, allowing the user to feel present and connected. 

When creating a figure in VR there is the ability to just step inside the drawing, painting, or sculpture to get a feeling of embodying the form, proportions, and pose. This is a poignant and emotional process that connects the artist intimately in a representational way. The process feels like body tracing or making a paper mache body mold but then being able to use any mark or medium to transform the figure.


In VR real life physics are completely malleable in regards to properties such as gravity, weight, and mass. Taking actions in VR with hands and body to push, pull, grasp, throw can exhibit novel characteristics. A normally heavy object may float or an individual may be capable of flying. 

Playing with the laws of nature and bending them may act as an awareness exercise regarding the rules that govern behavior. To explore and discover pliability within the VR environment can translate over into the users real world mindset and behavior. Rigidity and limited thinking can be expanded and transformed through the empowering plasticity of virtual reality creation. 


The nature of being present in a 3D space allows for different perspectives to be taken. Many VR art apps feature camera modes where users can position 3rd person angles. The artist can see themselves creating from this vantage point if they look at a second 2D screen. Spectators within the VR space and watching on screen can witness the artist create. VR art-making becomes a kind of performance art when setup in this way.

When creating a 1st person avatar and navigating in VR space, many social worlds allow you “jump out” into 3rd person point of view. This allows the user to navigate between being in direct embodied relationship and a feeling of watching from a distance (while still controlling the avatar). While VR art apps are still at a basic level regarding multiple avatars, at some point they will have this feature. Taking different perspectives and points of view is an important component of therapeutic change.

Ways to View Virtual Reality Art With Google Cardboard

Several apps and websites have emerged that allow users to both upload VR art made with high end equipment as well as contemplate the art in VR with a Google Cardboard viewer. If you don't yet have access to a headset and hand presence controllers, this is a great entry way into the virtual world of VR art.  


SketchFab is a giant repository of 3D art that is available both as a website as well as an app. To view artwork is as simple as clicking on a piece and waiting for the file to load. One thing to keep in mind is that sometimes there is a large amount of data to load the file and it could take some time depending on the internet connection speed. Some of the elements that have to be rendered are polygons, textures / colors, lighting, and sometimes animation. In a future blog post I will discuss all of these components that make up a VR art file as well as ways of optimizing VR art content to make the file size manageable for uploading.

Once the art is loaded onto your computer or phone you can start to manipulate the work via move, scale, and rotation. On the computer you use the small hand icon by holding and moving different buttons on your mouse. When using a phone or tablet you can do the same using touch gestures with your fingers. If you don't have a Google Cardboard available, this is a nice way of still being able to see the artwork in 3D without the VR option.

Once you have a Google Cardboard and smartphone available, you can click the VR viewer icon in the lower right hand corner. When you hover over the icon it will say "View In VR", this will enter you into VR mode. Your phone will change into a split screen and have an arrow in the top left corner, instructing you how to insert the phone into the Google Cardboard. 

Tilt Brush Sketches

Tilt Brush Sketches is a website that was created by Google to host VR art that was made in their app Tilt Brush. Once you click on a piece, the navigation to view the artwork on your screen is exactly the same as Sketchfab. To enter VR mode you click on VR viewer icon.

Some artists allow their creation to use a feature called remix. When a piece is made public / remixable any other user can save the file, open it in their version of Tilt Brush, and then proceed to add their own creative touches to it. Once this is done, the user can upload the new version which is a fun way to play with interpretation and perspective, acting as a type of response art. Sometimes an individual will start a piece with a single element and encourage multiple users to remix it, creating a chain of creative collaboration. 

Once you click the heart icon of a piece and like it, the file is then saved to your version of Tilt Brush. When you enter VR on your headset and load Tilt Brush, the file is available to be opened and viewed. Opening artwork in Tilt Brush is an amazing experience, as it plays back each stroke in 360 degrees around you. The emerging piece feels like a performance where you get to enter the artwork of the creator.


Blocks is a complementary website to Tilt Brush Sketches. It functions exactly the same with the only difference being it hosts VR art created in Google's Blocks app. While Tilt Brush is more painterly, Blocks allows the creator to make objects using tools found in traditional 3D modeling programs.

Recently Google implemented a feature in Tilt Brush where you can bring objects from Blocks directly into the app for integration. The combination of objects and painterly effects and strokes opens up compelling possibilities. On the Tilt Brush Sketches website you can start to see many artworks utilizing this fusion of tools.


Instamuseum is an interesting website created by Sketchfab that allows the user to upload their Instagram images and create a 3D virtual art gallery to house them. Once you connect your Sketchfab account you can enter your Instagram information and choose from a few options for how your layout should look. The algorithm will take a few minutes to build your gallery and then give you a web address link to view the finished product. Once you visit your new page, navigating your artwork on screen or in VR is the same as any other file in Sketchfab.   

 My Personal Journey with Traditional, Digital, and Virtual Reality Art Therapy

Growing up in the 80’s, some of my earliest memories were fondly connecting with my family around the Intellivision playing early video games. I remember almost passing out from pure joy and excitement upon receiving a Nintendo for my seventh birthday. Before digital ubiquity, these devices were a balanced part of childhood activities. 

I was also fortunate that my family was interested in personal computing. Our household always had the latest interesting peripherals and software to explore and often bonded through these experiences.

When I was 13 one of my schoolmates passed away in a bike accident. I had slept over his house the night before and had felt a long lasting relationship forming. My interests began to change as I looked for deeper meaning in life and began to explore spiritual paths and art making. In the art room I could express emotions, feelings, and the many parts of myself. 

I began to explore making art with the computer. It was very tedious and slow, using a mouse was like trying to paint with a bar of soap. In college a friend of mine showed me a multimedia game by musician Peter Gabriel called Eve. It was the first time I saw the potential for using computers to deliver a spiritual, world healing message. 

After College I enjoyed running an after school art program serving children and teens. The art studio was a tool to provide a safe place for kids to express themselves, build self esteem, and form a consistent reliable relationship. As I had also experienced in High School, being in the studio was a dynamically healing and nurturing environment. 

I started to experiment with using a digital pen and tablet to paint and draw on the computer which was much more intuitive. I saw a fully computer animated film in the theater called Final Fantasy Spirits Within. It was a tribute to the Director’s mother who had died in an accident and dealt with themes around healing the spirit of the earth (it was originally titled Gaia). I knew one day when tools were accessible and affordable individuals would be able to use computer animation to express inner states, feelings, and emotions. 

Since my teenage years I had been tracking the field of art therapy which completely appealed to me as a profession that understood the inherent power of art-making. During my undergraduate studies I was fortunate to take some art therapy courses with David Henley. He had a deep connection to Edith Kramer and her concepts of art as therapy. I was inspired by the combination of spiritual inquiry / practice and art therapy Graduate program that Naropa University offered and made my way from New York to Colorado.

I wanted to bring the new tools of digital media into the art studio (outside of the exclusive realms of game and film studios). My art therapy internship through Naropa offered me an opportunity to integrate digital art tools into the existing program framework which was a juvenile diversion program offering teens an alternate to going to court. I used a digital tablet, painting and photo software, and biofeedback games. 

What I foresaw in regards to using computer animation for personal expression came to fruition when I viewed the work of Chris Landreth. His concept of psychorealism expressed inner states through outer computer animated metaphors. With my thesis project, I began to see the therapeutic potential of taking an art therapy consumer from initial 2D art creation (via an initial Kramer art assessment) to a short psychorealistic final computer animation. 

The sessions progressed using the model of a computer animation pipeline. Beginning with the preliminary stages of storyboards and building clay models, the client was able to expand upon the initial imagery of the Kramer evaluation and enter into a deeper relationship with the content. Next, audio was recorded of the client narrating their feelings about different elements of Self and their relationship to these parts. 

Unfortunately at this point of the journey the client was dismissed from the program and needed to enter rehab. We were beginning to bring the traditional images and characters into the computer to build models to be animated. I realized at this point we would have needed a significantly greater amount of time to complete this part of the animated pipeline. 

Despite not yielding a final product, the process proved to be transformative for the client. There was a creative continuum from initial concepts / symbolic equivalents to realizing those expressions in fully formed animations. You could stop anywhere along the way and the process itself was effective in promoting healing, transformation, and self growth.

After graduating I ran a studio to help other art therapy consumers experience the healing potential of the creative continuum. Clients found digital art and computer animation compelling parts of the journey, however, I was still struggling to reach outcomes due to time constraints and technical complexity. Virtual Reality was the key that would finally unlock technology’s potential for expression.

Not only does VR make computer painting, sculpting, and animation significantly more intuitive and accessible, it adds new dimensions of realtime interactivity and presence. I am just beginning the journey of integrating these new tools into the art therapy framework. Engaging with the technologies of my childhood, I could only dream of a day where we could step inside the imagination and be present within a work of art. Now its a reality and VR’s potential for healing, connection, and self expression is only limited by what we can imagine. 

Qualities of a Good Virtual Reality Art App

It’s amazing to see the amount of high quality, expressive, and robustly featured VR art-making apps that have already emerged within a short period of time. In engaging with and exploring many of these tools, I have distilled down what makes a compelling and creative tool for art-making and art therapy into several properties.

Multiplayer / Shared VR Space

Purchasing and setting up one VR rig for your practice is quite the investment on many levels. When your client is immersed in the VR headset making art, it can be restrictive to educate the client on using an app, troubleshoot technical issues, or make a 3rd hand intervention. 

Presently I use a projector as a second monitor to see a large VR mirror view of what the client is seeing and doing. This is quite manageable and compelling, however in the future having two VR rigs (one for the consumer, one for the therapist) is where the ultimate potential of VR art therapy is unlocked.
Being present within the client’s artwork together, navigating and experiencing what they are creating allows for unlimited possibilities. It makes the aforementioned therapist input much more relational, rich, and impactful. There are several apps that have the ability to host two or more individuals in the same VR art space. MasterpieceVR allows multiple people to create within a VR environment or even participate in a group VR art therapy experience. 

Playback & Sharing Options 

After creating artwork in true volumetric 3D space, it’s important that the creation can then be experienced by others in an equally impactful way. Many apps have the ability to export a 2D image or video of the finished art and save it to disc or online, however this loses a lot of dimensional presence of the work.

A better option is to export the VR art file as a 3D object that can give the viewer a sense of scale and volume when seen through a simple VR device such as Google Cardboard. The Sketchfab website hosts files in this manner and some apps export VR art directly to the artist’s Sketchfab account. Google has done a great job with their own apps Tilt Brush & Blocks having dedicated websites for each respectively. Once files are uploaded they can even be remixed by other artists, adding a collaborative and evolving element to VR works. 

Perhaps the most exciting way to experience VR art is to be present in VR space, load a file, and experience the work come to life stroke by stroke in 360 degrees around you. Painting apps such as Tilt Brush and Quill include this feature and it’s an amazing way to share your creative process. For therapists to witness their client’s artwork emerge in this way can yield unique insight and appreciation.

Robust Tools 

Luminaries of the art therapy field such as Wadeson and Kramer have emphasized the importance of art materials that have a wide spectrum of expressive qualities. Materials that span a dynamic range from thick to thin, smooth to rough, and that resist and obey are critical to offer the widest range of creative engagement. 

Tools that mimic traditional media from oil paint to clay are features contained in many VR art apps. Different size and shape brush tips, stamps, and stroke tapers provide an assortment of mark making possible impressions within the VR space. Erasing, smoothing, smudging virtual paint or pushing, pulling, carving virtual clay can alter and augment primary marks and forms in an intuitive and natural way. 
While it can be argued that tactile sensation is limited with digital art tools in general, VR hand presence controllers provide haptic feedback via vibrational response. Several VR art apps use this feature to add visceral weight and believability to the gestural artistic movements of the user. 

Intuitive UI 

Computing with a 2D monitor and inputs such as a mouse and keyboard create a level of abstraction in regards to the user interface (UI). With VR, there is much more direct human familiarity with the ability to use your hands in 3D space as we naturally do in the real world. 

Many VR apps use relatable metaphors to our everyday movements and actions. For example in Tilt Brush and Blocks, to change handedness is as easy as tapping the ends of the hand presence controllers together. In addition, palettes can be positioned anywhere around you in 3D space making art tools easily accessible at all times (no menus to dig through as in 2D interfaces). 


One of the aspects of VR that takes some time getting acclimated to is orientation and navigation in 3D space. Since scale is such an important facet of being in a virtual space, having cues right away help to position the user and get them comfortable. In Tilt Brush, squeezing the grip buttons pulls up a size slider with a visual reference of a squirrel, dog, human, elephant, and Brontosaurus. Each of these represents the scale at which you will view the VR artwork with the squirrel making the work giant sized and Brontosaurus simulating a kind of miniature scale piece.  

Almost all VR art apps have adopted one or both of the controller grips to scale, rotate, and move the VR artwork. This works in a very gestural and intuitive way, moving your arms forward and back as if you were pulling a rope to move, pulling your hands out to the sides to scale, and twisting your wrists to rotate. If you scale to a small size, 3D painted and sculpted VR objects can be held and manipulated front to back by moving and twisting your hand / wrist just like you would work with an art object in real life. 


Making virtual reality art is an active and dynamic activity. Constant movement around the artwork and navigating 3D space requires smooth and uninterrupted tracking (how sensors detect your head and hands to know where you are) to keep artist immersed. The best VR art apps provide solid performance when the user moves either their head or hands when creating. These tools are consistently updated and improved when tracking bugs are experienced. 

When there are tracking or latency issues (VR world isn’t updating each second to match user movement) sim sickness can occur which is a serious VR issue. While occasional artifacts can and do occur with top VR art apps, the VR world remains persistent and updated the majority of the time. That being said, breaks from the headset and staying hydrated are important practices. 

Flexible Assets

While the best VR art apps offer a lot of creative options in themselves, combining tools together through import and export provides expansive combinations. For instance you might build or sculpt a figure or object in Blocks or Medium, then export your creation into Tilt Brush or AnimVR to add animated brushstrokes. 

The two most common formats for exporting static art files are .FBX and .OBJ. Many VR art apps have these options which also allow you to upload VR artwork. Websites such as SketchFab host these files which can be experienced with VR viewers such as Google Cardboard. 

Alembic is a more advanced file export option which AnimVR supports. It allows animations to be sent to other programs. Tilt Brush and AnimVR have released Unity game engine toolkits that take your entire file into Unity and enables the user to add full interactivity along with lights, materials, camera movement and more.

Digital Art Advantages 

Using technology for art creation allows for properties unique to the digital medium. All of the top VR apps have incorporated features such as undo / redo, layers, duplication, and mirroring. Digital art tools can help with session time constraints and allow for quick iterations and variations on a theme. They can help clients feel comfortable and competent with the VR art tools.  


It’s important that VR art app companies respond in a timely manner to any issues or bugs that users may encounter. User feedback from artists creates a feedback loop for new features to be incorporated in future updates. Well resourced businesses such as Oculus and Google have dedicated teams to address concerns and provide updates and fixes. Some of the smaller independent teams may not have as many members but in the age of social media sometimes respond faster and are more connected with their user base. 


Many apps have created user engagement and connection through social media. Often times app creators will offer prompts around themes and holidays and then ask the community to post their creations to various online destinations to share with others. Tilt Brush has its online website Sketches which allows users to post VR artwork and have other artists download the original file, remix it, and post the new version. This is a type of response art that can create empathy and connection.

Conducting an Initial Virtual Reality Art Therapy Session

Once you understand the expressive power and potential of VR art-making and have the equipment to make it possible, how do you facilitate a therapeutic experience for another? Here are some preliminary steps for getting clients inside and immersed in the VR world, feeling comfortable with the equipment and free to move and create.

Intro to VR art through Google Cardboard

The easiest way for Virtual Reality Art Therapy consumers to understand art-making in VR is to experience it firsthand right at the start of a consultation. I provide complementary Google Cardboards (as my business card) however you could have one on hand for this purpose. There are a number of good websites and apps to show VR art. This provides a good foundation for introducing the high level art making equipment.

Calibrating Equipment

The next step is to introduce the head mounted display (HMD), sensors, and hand presence Touch controllers. The first thing I show are the various straps and how to adjust the headset for a comfortable fit. I also explain what to expect from the lenses such as the screen door and fresnel god ray effects. This is a good time to explain interpupillary distance and adjust it. Lastly, I explain sensor layout, the guardian system and where to move around. The Oculus Rift makes setup very easy and fast which is important when working within the time constraints of a consultation.

Introductory VR Art Making Experience

With many great VR art application options, it’s helpful to briefly explore what initially appeals to the client. Apps such as Tilt Brush and Quill are good choices for drawing and painting. For building and sculpting, Blocks and Medium are accessible apps to start. Some clients may be more hesitant to jump in and create. Self image and identity altering apps such as Mindshow and EmbodyMe may be a more comfortable introduction to VR and it’s creative possibilities. 

Finishing artwork, witnessing, and checking in

At this point the VR art therapy consumer has viewed examples of virtual reality artwork, has gotten comfortable with the equipment involved, and has had an initial experience creating art in VR. The next step is to check in with them in regards to how the consultation went and how you can support and empower them through further sessions. Witnessing the artwork together and sharing insights is a nice way to conclude.

Getting Started with High End Virtual Reality

You may have experienced a taste of high end virtual reality at the AATA conference, Best Buy, or Microsoft Store and have interest in acquiring a system for your art therapy practice. It can be daunting to know where to begin and what questions to consider. Here are five essential factors to keep in mind:

Choosing a HMD

There are two high end Head Mounted Displays on the market: Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive. It’s similar to the personal computer market where you have Apple and Windows. There are several reasons I prefer the Oculus Rift including the all in one form factor, more streamlined and accessible hardware / software, and overall more user friendly from setup to technical support.

Choosing a Computer 

Running VR is very resource intensive and you need a computer with a lot of memory and processing power, especially graphics wise. Unfortunately, Apple / MacOS is not known for powerful graphic processing units (GPUs) and although this is changing there is currently no official support for Mac from Oculus Rift.

My recommendation for a PC / Windows based system at the best price is to have it built. You can visit to see the best prices by component. They also show specific builds for VR. By searching your local Craigslist you can find reputable computer builders. Feel free to contact me for my personal suggestion in the Front Range Area. 

Choosing Peripherals

Besides the HMD, sensors to track your body’s movement and hand presence controllers are other essential parts that make up your VR rig that you will need. The best value is to purchase the Oculus Rift with Touch bundle which includes all the above. You also receive Oculus Medium and Quill art apps with this purchase. I have added a few other peripherals to my setup, however they not necessary to start.

Choosing an Ecosystem

There are two primary places where you purchase and download VR applications; Oculus Home and Steam. If you are familiar with iTunes or Apple’s App Store they are very similar. There are some apps that are only available on Steam so I use both. Once you install Steam, purchase an app, and launch it, the app will show up in Oculus Home. This makes it convenient to run everything from Oculus Home and keep it in one place. 

Choosing Optimizations

This last consideration is more of an advanced topic and is worth exploring once your up and running. The primary application that I utilize is called Oculus Tray Tool. Running the OTT allows for resolution, speed, and performance improvements. Since VR is so resource intensive, any boost in these areas is most welcome.

What is Virtual Reality Art Therapy?

There are two levels of virtual reality available to experience: low level and high level. Both are useful and compelling for art therapy in the following ways: viewing virtual reality art and creating it, respectively.

On the low / entry level end, Google has created Cardboard. As the name implies, the device is a simple piece of cardboard that folds into a viewer. You add basic lenses that come with it then slide your cell phone into the holder to power it.

There are several websites and apps that allow you to view VR artwork that was created with high end VR equipment. This creates a nice entry way into virtual reality art, allowing the viewer to experience the scale, volume, brushstrokes, and animated qualities of VR forms even if they don't yet have direct access to the high end VR art making tools. 

The Cardboard is rotationally tracked, meaning you can look around you in a direction but cannot lean or move around. With the more powerful, computer based configurations you additionally have positional tracking which allows you to lean, duck, jump, walk (and create!) within the virtual environment using your full body.

With high level systems you wear a head mounted display (HMD)  that makes you feel present and immersed in a virtual environment- as if you have been transported to a different place. There is the ability to look around you with a wide field of view in true stereoscopic 3D. Spacialized audio provides realistic surround sound cues.

Additionally, hand presence controllers allow you to see your hands and interact with objects. This allows you to push, pull, grasp and throw items often with realistic physics. Having realistic hand tracking and intuitive controls is what really unlocks the possibilities of painting, sculpting, and animating in virtual reality with full body, gestural movement.

When choosing a high end VR headset and purchasing a computer to run it there are a number of factors to consider. In order to get the best form factor and value for virtual reality art-making, I recommend the Oculus Rift and an independently build PC to run it.  

My journey with digital art-making tools has lead me to see all media as a creative continuum in service of an initial idea / symbolic equivalent on the journey towards formed expression. 

2D---Give form to Idea   3D----Idea occupies space   Animation----Idea has movement

Then w/ VR you add interactivity, presence, & immersion and the Idea becomes alive

These stages of an Idea can happen w/ a mix of traditional / digital media or they can all happen within VR (and of course can be mixed non linearly ie 3D Printing VR sculpture or a hand drawn image plane for ref in VR)

Getting into virtual reality at this time represents an exciting opportunity to shape the dialog around a new medium and what it's impact will be on a societal level. Please see the above blue highlighted links for blog posts that delve deeper into these preliminary concerns when beginning the VR journey and don't hesitate to reach out if I can be of assistance.