Virtual Worlds: Visit Van Gogh’s Masterpiece ‘The Night Café’ in Virtual Reality

I open my eyes to a gritty, urban skyline dotted with airships. Looking down, I find my feet, the rooftop’s edge, and a vertiginous drop to the street below. Seconds later, I’m transported to a bombed out warehouse and stalked by a T-Rex.

I visited these worlds (and several more) during an Oculus Rift Crescent Bay demo at this year’s Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) conference. Virtual worlds may prove fertile ground for tomorrow’s artists—and perhaps they’ll resurrect the works of yesterday’s masters too.

Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Night Café,” for example, recently became a portal on the virtual world.

“I have always been drawn to the paintings of van Gogh,” writes Mac Cauley, the New York game developer behind the project, “and I imagined it would be amazing to be inside one of these colorful worlds.”

So, he adapted the painting for Gear VR.

Though Cauley’s creation is based on a van Gogh painting, he had to expand on it a touch.

The painting’s perspective is frozen—but in virtual reality, you can move, and as your line of sight changes, new objects that were hidden before pop into view. Also, although van Gogh’s swirls and flourishes enliven a motionless painting, in Cauley’s version, those yellow wave fronts of light actually do throb and pulse.

“It’s been an interesting process in using reference material from van Gogh and other expressionist painters,” Cauley writes, “but also imagining what might have been there, just off the edges of the canvas.”

Cauley submitted his project as part of the Oculus Mobile VR Jam, a competition to create new games, apps, and experiences for the Gear VR Innovator Edition. There’s over $1 million at stake, $200,000 for the best game and $100,000 for the best experience or app. The winners will be announced June 4.

Being able to walk into a van Gogh painting is a pretty cool concept. And it’s indicative of just how far virtual worlds can go. But Cauley’s van Gogh VR experience, and the Mobile VR Jam in general, show us something else too.

We have this promising new technology that can create quality digital immersion—but we don’t have many places to go immerse ourselves yet. Many of the demos I tried at SVVR were either very simple games or passive exploratory experiences.

At first, especially when viewed on top-of-the-line equipment, these are stunning and new. But after the initial flush of excitement wears off, it’s clear they are also still pretty limited and sometimes glitchy, unless carefully controlled by the maker.

Now, as we look beyond virtual reality headsets—of which consumer versions are expected later this year and early next—two new challenges loom. The first is content, and the second is how we interact in VR. My experience at SVVR proved people are working both problems, and neither has been solved yet.

And that’s an important distinction. Despite excitement and wide coverage, it’s still early days for virtual reality latest resurrection. So far, it has been entirely a technology for developers and tech geeks. How it will play out for consumers next year is less certain.

This is how I imagine the first days of PCs (and no doubt lots of other technologies). A small group of developers was in on the ground floor. Excitement outstripped capability. Quality ranged widely. Groups were working on different technologies and approaches. None had won out yet. No complete package had materialized.

And at the same time, the potential seemed tantalizingly obvious. Same thing with this latest round of VR. When you get to try the latest and greatest? It’s still magical. Now, on to the gritty details.

Image Credit: Mac Cauley/YouTube

Jason Dorrier
Jason Dorrier
Jason is editorial director of Singularity Hub. He researched and wrote about finance and economics before moving on to science and technology. He's curious about pretty much everything, but especially loves learning about and sharing big ideas and advances in artificial intelligence, computing, robotics, biotech, neuroscience, and space.
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