Last year, I spent a night inside a Vincent van Gogh painting. The room—a promotional Airbnb for a related exhibit at the Art Institute—should have been a silly gimmick. After all, the bed frame was shellacked with impressionist swirls, and the cups and vases were glued to the side table. Instead, it felt like an uncanny journey into van Gogh’s psyche, which made seeing his bedroom painting series only more incredible the next morning.
I’m reminded of that night as I slip on a Google Daydream VR headset and try Art Plunge, a new app in beta by the Swedish developers Martin Eklund and Martin Christensen. It places you in a stark gallery. Three masterpieces hang on the wall: Johannes Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.
If I look long enough at these paintings, I can actually begin to see inside. The canvas melts away, and the scene expands. Suddenly, I’m inside a Vermeer. The fruit radiates with golden light in three dimensions. His subject almost seems to breathe. And by turning my head, I can look out the window and see the Schie River. This view isn’t in Vermeer’s painting, of course. But it’s actually a Vermeer, too. It’s his painting View of Delft, mapped seamlessly into another one of his scenes.
Like the van Gogh Airbnb, this should be cheesy and overreaching. Instead, it just feels right—as if I’m in the world Vermeer would have painted, if only he were alive a few hundred years later, and he used Tiltbrush instead of a paintbrush.
"I guess you could say Art Plunge was inspired both by the promise and the limitations of early VR. Movement and interaction are still problematic for wide adoption, but yet, the presence is there and it's powerful," says Eklund. "So the question became, 'Where would I want to be?' rather than, 'What do I want to do?' Why simulate something real when, for the first time, we could take people somewhere surreal?"
It’s a question that led to a Kickstarter campaign, and countless hours of art direction, in which Martin and Martin map famous 2D paintings into 3D space. The process requires filling in gaps, and that takes some artistic license (and theft from a painter’s other works). As Eklund explains, the process takes "too long." But the work is convincing. The world of Vermeer is a tad oversaturated compared to the painting; otherwise, it feels spot on. Likewise, seeing the Mona Lisa in 3D is a trip, even if her environment—a terrace overlooking the painting’s wild, marshy backdrop—is inherently less inspiring. (The Creation of Adam isn’t yet explorable in 3D.)
For now, you can try the Art Plunge preview for free on Daydream, Cardboard, the Samsung Gear VR, and HTC Vive. The full app, which will cost a small fee, should be available this summer. And if this project whets your palate, I’d recommend you try The Night Cafe, which uses VR to take you into a van Gogh painting that spans a full two rooms of colorful, convincing facsimile.
Sure, all this VR art is a gimmick. But dang is it a good one.