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.