Tripp Derrick Barnes is a New York City-based multi-media artist. Most of his available works are paintings, but in the last few years, he’s found a new favorite medium: VR experiences. Barnes has worked with some pretty recognizable names, including Crystal Head Vodka and the Syfy channel. If you visited or read about last year’s Comic-Con, you may know about the VR puzzle wall. That was him.
Barnes doesn’t just enjoy creating VR experiences, he loves the whole idea of VR. Much of his time is devoted to spreading the word and helping people experience the medium. Naturally, he was thrilled to talk with ARPost about his work, philosophies, and predictions for the future of XR technology.
“I started in 2016. I was a part of this charity to help build homes in Israel,” explained Barnes. “One of the curators of the event wanted to see if they could do a VR sculpture.”
Barnes was unfamiliar with VR and lacked the hardware and software but he was interested in the project. He partnered with Jump into the Light, an XR cinema, arcade and studio in the Lower East Side. He discovered Google Tilt Brush and created the sculpture, which sold to a digital art buyer.
“I collaborated with them and that was the first time I got involved in VR. I dove into it for about a week,” said Barnes. “Then they asked if I wanted to do an artist residency.”
Barnes took the position but found the commute tedious. So, he kept his eye out for his own hardware. Eventually, a VR arcade in New Jersey closed and sold off their supplies. Barnes took a train out and returned with everything he needed to make VR experiences in his own studio.
VR Experiences and Conventional Art
One could say that Tilt Brush isn’t called Paint Brush for a reason. Creating conventional art is completely different from creating a VR experience.
“A lot of VR artists tell me this, that they all started in 2D or they were in 3D art but when you transfer into VR it’s like your brain has to rewire itself,” said Barnes. “There’s a huge learning curve… it took me a good month to figure out how to approach VR art.”
When I discovered VR it was like someone gave me a golden ticket.
Part of this has to do with the difference between creating conventional art and creating VR experiences.
“I’ve found that the best place for me to start is with picking my color palette and limiting my brush sizes because what you can do is literally limitless,” said Barnes. “When I can do something I love with VR is when a client wants me to do something completely unique and create a whole new world. I always try to do that with painting and other media but when I discovered VR it was like someone gave me a golden ticket.”
Barnes manages the challenges of the new medium by working with a coder who helps him handle the technical aspects.
“I work a lot with Unity, but to a small degree,” said Barnes. “When it comes to all of the coding I have a developer to help me so I’m kind of like a creative director.”
Barriers to Adoption
To Barnes, the technical requirements of VR aren’t just a barrier for creators – they’re a barrier to users.
“I’m in Manhattan. This is like the capital of the world,” Barnes said, referring to the population and culture. “But, to this day, out of everyone that I meet, no one has tried VR.”
A lot of people have engaged with something like VR experiences Google Cardboard. However, Barnes believes that people need time to really experience VR. As a result, he regularly uses his studio to give people their first proper introduction.
“Until you’re in an environment like my studio and you have someone to guide you through it… the dynamics of VR are so extreme,” said Barnes. “My great joy as an artist, as a creator, is to help people get involved in it.”
The dive into VR that Barnes talks about is more than just exploring Tilt Brush. Barnes has also brushed up on a lot of the technical and market aspects of XR. They’ve led him to a concerning conclusion.
“The customers, they’re waiting for the games to get better and the hardware to get cheaper,” said Barnes. “While the companies are waiting for customers to buy more games and hardware. It’s like a stalemate… until the tech improves and becomes cheaper, it can’t really expand but at the same time it’s evolving quickly.”
A Possible Future for VR
The catch-22 Barnes identifies doesn’t mean that there’s no future for VR. Barnes just thinks that we need to change the way that VR experiences are approached. Right now VR is exciting because it’s so difficult for most people to access. To get more people involved, it needs to be demystified.
“There are communities out there that are showcasing and keeping people updated but there needs to be a platform that brings everyone together,” said Barnes. “A platform where a soccer mom and a six-year-old kid and someone in their mid-twenties who wants to learn can all get together and explore new things.”
The development of this community is something that we, as individuals, can get started on. In the meantime, the technical aspect of VR will become more and more accessible.
“I’d like to see, in the future, a group that can come together and showcase this stuff,” said Barnes. “We all know that the chips are getting smaller, the technology is getting easier to use. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in five or six years, everyone has VR.”
What Barnes Is Up to Now
While we wait for that moment, Barnes is keeping busy creating more VR experiences. He can’t say a whole lot about the partnerships and experiences that he has in the works right now, unfortunately.
However, one last difference is that VR experiences can be edited and expanded in ways that painting and sculptures can’t.
“I’m most proud of creating a solar system in Unity,” said Barnes. “It’s almost like a theme park rollercoaster but you aren’t going 100 miles per hour.”
The VR experience, made as a partnership with Crystal Head Vodka, was showcased at Barnes’ 30th birthday party. I wasn’t able to experience it but his description sounds something like when Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman tour custom-built planets in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Viewers were able to look around but there wasn’t much to do. However, Barnes debates going back and making it more interactive – one more thing that VR experiences have over paintings.