Art department’s VR studio sees new uses at UMN

Now that the VR studio is set up in the UMN art department, students and faculty find innovative uses for the new technology.

Melinda Hiller works in VR to create the drawings that are projected behind her.

Courtesy of Karen Haselmann

Melinda Hiller works in VR to create the drawings that are projected behind her.

Kait Ecker

An innovation grant awarded to the University of Minnesota art department last summer is reaping benefits as students and faculty grow accustomed to the virtual reality studio.

The University’s art department received an $18,000 Innovation Grant from Liberal Arts Technologies and Innovation Services in July to develop a space for virtual reality technology. LATIS and the art department spent the first half of fall semester setting up the VR studio and the last half troubleshooting and experimenting with the technology. 

With the grant, the department purchased three VR headsets and three computers capable of running VR and 3D software. 

Art-based uses for the VR technology may include virtually conceptualizing a sculpture before using costly materials, building VR galleries of personal art and creating immersive worlds to explore.

“Actually using VR to sculpt, it’s as intuitive as you can get,” said Tristan Klancke, a mechanical engineering student. “It’s your hands, it’s your body; you move your head where you want to look, you move your hands where you want to be.” 

Klancke took a virtual project into the physical realm by 3D-printing a model of art he created in VR, a process that is new to the art department.

Klancke said he enjoyed using the technology so much that he bought his own VR setup. He was introduced to the VR technology through Mark Schoening’s Introduction to Digital Drawing class. 

Since Schoening integrated the technology into the course, he encourages students to explore the technology outside of class. 

“We’re all learning together, and that also creates an excitement about this space,” Schoening said.

Clarence Morgan, an art department professor, said he makes a point of introducing his students to all the tools available to them through the department, which now includes the VR studio. But as a more tactile, hands-on artist, Morgan wants to touch and feel the art he creates, and VR technology does not allow for that, he said.

“I don’t see an application personally as an artist, as a creative person, for myself. But that doesn’t mean I should deny that to the students that I work with,” Morgan said.

The VR studio is frequently used for classwork and projects now that the technology is set up and students and faculty are learning how to use it, said Pearl Davis, the VR student support technician for the studio. 

“Brandon, the grad student, he’s in here all the time, and you can tell that the work’s improving,” Davis said. “It’s a new technology, and we’re all kind of starting from the exact same point of a lack of knowledge and building that knowledge.” 

Brandon Chambers, a printmaker in the art department’s graduate program, said he’s focused on bringing “various different forms of technology into more traditional practices.”

This semester, he said he is turning virtual art into something tangible, like 2D screen printing a design that was a 3D virtual art piece.

Schoening said the technology can empower students in his class, and he hopes to use it to challenge notions of their capabilities.

“What’s so exciting about bringing people into VR is that there is a full-body engagement with the work,” Schoening said. “It’s incredibly gratifying as a teacher to watch someone who’s maybe hesitant to put on the headset … make their first gesture. And suddenly, their whole body moves around it, and it becomes this wonderful dance to watch.”