Though head-mounted VR displays have been around (in one way or another) since the 60s, modern computing speeds have fueled their resurgence onto the tech stage. Creative teams are attempting to learn more about its application in other industries. While the power and capabilities of advanced VR technologies are still raising societal questions, it’s an exciting new mode of practicing art and design.

The latest virtual reality applications, many built in Unity, Maya, and Unreal Engine, open up a new medium for artists to venture in and experiment with techniques. Look through these fun project ideas and get started on your own virtual reality creation.

1. Design an escape room

Going through an escape room is a fun exercise in problem solving, but what about trying to create one? This tests your spatial awareness and gets you to think about how to set up mentally challenging clues. Pick a theme like a dungeon or house of horrors, or take it a step further by creating a labyrinth with multiple rooms of increasing difficulty. Get some friends to test out the room and see who can make it out the fastest. Unity offers an approachable introduction to VR. While it’s a preferred choice for advanced game developers, it’s suitable for those with even basic programming knowledge and helps you learn along the way.

Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / CC BY 2.0. There are tons of existing VR applications that you can scaffold your own creativity on.

2. Recreate famous artwork

Get some cultural inspiration by recreating your favorite artworks. Channel the fluid brushstrokes of Van Gogh or emulate the bold self-portraits of Frida Kahlo. The project allows you to express traditional art in a new medium, and tools like Google Tilt Brush or Mozilla A-Painter get you off the ground quickly. Since you get to apply your paint within a three-dimensional space, you’re essentially laying on brushstrokes in mid-air. One advantage is that you’ll get a better view of the many layers and depth of your work, providing you a new way to interact with your creation.

3. Build an architectural space

Architecture students and structural engineers often make scale models of their building designs, but why settle for that when you can make something you can actually walk through and explore? Getting to see the physical dimensions gives you a better feel for the layout and how it would be navigated in the real world. You can experiment with design elements and mix and match styles. With VR tools, the range of color options gives you a better visualization than a standard pencil blueprint. You can get a sample of what’s possible with VR apps like ARKi (iPhone only, for now).

Bonus: Your architecture doesn’t have to be physically capable of supporting itself.

4. Develop a theme park ride

Another project ideal for students is to invent an imaginative ride design. Create a rollercoaster or plan narrative scenes for a fun dark ride. Since your “rider” doesn’t need to directly interact with most of your environment, this is a great way to focus on your world-building. VR is an excellent environment to design and build theme park rides since you can build a smaller model of the ride and quickly add or erase elements. The virtual environment lets you address different stages of development, from mock-ups where you can visualize mechanical components, as well as deciding what kind of scenery is positioned throughout the ride. Once the model is complete, do a test run!

5. Plant a botanical garden

A beautiful virtual botanical garden makes for a relaxing space and ambitious artistic project. Create an escapist organic landscape where you can cultivate flowers, trees, and even add wildlife. For this project you can use Quill by Story Studio, one of the more powerful artistic programs admired by filmmakers for its studio-quality look. You can divide the finished environment into themed areas and draw aesthetic inspiration from architectural styles, like a Roman villa or Japanese garden. Finish with detailed touches like winding walkways, ponds, art displays, and bridges. It’s not quite the same as a living garden and you don’t get the pleasant scent of fresh flowers and air, but it’s a pretty close substitute for the real thing.

Student Work by Joost Kiens in The Nature of Code

6. Construct set design spaces

Creatives working in entertainment industries can create their own virtual studios to make it easier to consider concept designs. Whether it’s dressing a set or designing wardrobe pieces, VR tools allow you to quickly flesh out your work even while its in its beginning stages. Similar to modeling objects in animation software like Maya, designing in a virtual space lets you view all angles of your project. Since set design encapsulates everything from the stage to the props within it, you can choose from various applications like Tilt Brush or architecture programs.

7. Make an underwater environment

A popular choice for many animators and visual development artists, creating underwater environments are never a boring option that lacks inspiration. The ocean’s myriad shapes and exquisite color palettes make it a great starting project for beginners and more experienced artists to learn VR techniques. Including natural features like lighting, bioluminescence, and unusual sea creatures help to strengthen the overall visual impact and makes the environment more convincing. Similar to Tilt Brush, PaintLab’s basic features like painting, sculpting, and object manipulation make it accessible for artists of all skill levels.

If you’re looking to learn more about how to take the next step in VR, these courses focusing on Unity and Maya (respectively) can get you there:

Exploring the Mixed Reality Landscape

Pacific Northwest College of Art


Introduction to 3D Modeling and Animation With Maya

California College of the Arts