virtual reality art therapy

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.