Will the pandemic finally make virtual reality more than just a fringe technology used by gamers?
With massive numbers of people sitting in their living rooms, musicians without venues to play in, and creatives needing new outlets, perhaps this is the year we see Antonin Artaud's 1938 vision of "la réalité virtuelle" come to fruition.
People in the VR industry certainly have their hopes up. A recent report projects that its U.S. revenues will nearly quadruple by 2027 as the technology becomes more affordable. A basic, stand-alone Oculus Quest 2 headset now sells for $300.
"I can have a very nice VR setup in my home and I don't have to buy a $2,000 computer to power it with, which was the case up until about a year ago," said Brian Skalak, director of marketing and events at St. Louis Park virtual reality company REM5.
REM5 has a restaurant/arcade space that has been affected by the pandemic, but like many businesses, it's experimenting. One such project is a digital experience the Cedar Cultural Center is launching on Thursday. Designed by Skalak in collaboration with Adriana Rimpel — the singer/musician/composer better known as Lady Midnight — it can be experienced with a VR headset or even on your regular computer.
As you enter "Practice for Relief," you are surrounded by trippy rainbow stripes and undulating designs. You walk over a bridge dotted with eyes that open and close and then reach a platform dotted with ritualistic-looking stones.
That's when you hear Rimpel's meditative music, which shifts as you "walk" to different spaces on the platform. You might hear more languorous guitar playing, swelling synchronized airiness or the sound of abstracted waterfalls, depending on which stone you're near.
Rimpel, a member of the Cedar's Artist Collective, got the idea of creating a VR experience after seeing an exhibition at Gamut Gallery that enlisted Skalak's expertise. The artwork could be seen only digitally, via goggles participants wore as they walked through the gallery.
"I was really impressed with how they had been able to recreate this digital architecture within these goggles," Rimpel said.
She decided to work with Skalak on a virtual version of something she had hoped to do in person, before the pandemic — gather musicians to work together improvisationally.
"The virtual participant will be able to have different sound experiences based off of where they place themselves in a room, just like you would if you went to a regular show," she said. "I wanted to have three different audio streams, that would be able to relate to one."
The launch of "Practice for Relief" takes place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (register in advance at thecedar.org). It includes a question-and-answer session and you'll get a link that will take you to the virtual experience. If you don't have a headset, you can still view it on a computer. (It's best experienced using Google Chrome via a platform called WEBXR.)
"We're able to build a virtual environment that you can get to simply by going to a web page," said Skalak. "It's a space that you can explore in three dimensions."
Rimpel hoped to create music that has healing properties, so she used a certain sound frequency — 396 hertz — for its affect on the spirit. She had musicians Kavyesh Kaviraj, Jalyn Spencer and Ziyad Habib tune their instruments to that frequency as she gave them directions for their improvisation, focusing on grounding and the release of guilt and fear.
"Sound is healing," she said.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts journalist and critic.