Blending the virtual and physical environments is an endeavor tech giants have been seeking to master for the past decade. What originated in the world of video games has slowly crept into mainstream conversations about the potential to produce an enriched, more immersive artistic medium. Mixed reality experiences have evolved rapidly since the 1990s, and its domination of headlines indicates the hype around it is only picking up steam as artists find new ways to progress the form.

Virtual and mixed reality is a relatively new and burgeoning field, but there’s already a stream of talented innovators on the rise, looking to seek and disrupt the boundaries of the exciting technological space, and a few still working who have influenced its trajectory from the beginning. Here are some of the field’s top digital and multimedia artists whose cutting-edge projects are poised to shift the experimental virtual reality terrain.

Ian Cheng, Emissary in the Squat of Gods (2015)

Ian Cheng

Industry professional Ian Cheng has spent years making a name for himself in the VR world. He’s done special effects on films like Star Wars for effects powerhouse Industrial Light and Magic. Cheng debuted his original storytelling Emissaries (2017), a live game simulation in MoMa. His “virtual ecosystems” contain narratives derived from anthropology. Just as his work reflects the hierarchies of primitive societies, the digital communities sustain themselves. His work is a meditation of how technology aids human evolution. Cheng’s work taps into primal emotions and reveals mechanics of cognitive processes, forcing the viewer to let go of assumptions of human behavior.

Notable projects: Emissaries (2017), Stranger (2016), Entropy Wrangler (2013)

Elizabeth Edwards, still from Sea Prayer, a 360 film illustrated in Tilt Brush

Elizabeth Edwards

Before working on VR projects, UK-based 3D character artist Elizabeth Edwards took inspiration from video games, working on titles like Total War: Warhammer. She first burst onto the scene in London 2015 at HTC’s Vive VR Game Jam. What distinguishes her art is her intuitive approach to conceptualizing in VR, often using Quill and Oculus Medium. Her detailed composition, bright color palettes, and sci-fi influences are evident in works like Spaceship Scene (2017) and Mountain Range (2017).

Notable projects: Spaceship Scene (2017), Spooky (2017)

Rachel Rossin, Use a Fiberglass Boat (2015)

Rachel Rossin

Since she started coding as a child, Rachel Rossin’s passion towards technology never ceased. The multi-media artist has gained recognition for her virtual reality installations, later earning the title as the first VR fellow at The New Museum’s NEW INC. Her surreal exhibition Lossy highlights the idea of “lossy compression”, a computer programming concepts that refers to the erasure of boundaries between the real and virtual. The exhibit is built on Rossin’s own personal memories growing up, moving the viewer past structures such as her studio. Rossin’s combined background of painting and programming has led to a body of work that often tackles the ambiguity of modern digital imagery.

Notable projects: I Came and Went as a Ghost Hand (2015), Lossy (2015), Maquette (2017)

Shezad Dawood, Leviathan (2017)

Shezad Dawood

Shezad Dawood is a London multi-media artist. In his most recent work Kalimpong (2016), Dawood chooses to feature both tradition and innovation for a cultural homage. His exhibit includes screen prints, sculptures, as well as a VR experience which transports viewers to the town of Kalimpong, Bengal, said to be home of the Yeti. Kalimpong captures the atmosphere of mysticism and historical roots associated with the town, a popular destination for adventurers.

Notable project: Kalimpong (2016)

Chris Milk, The Treachery of Sanctuary (2012)

Chris Milk

Entrepreneur and music video director are just a few titles Chris Milk has under his belt. Well-established in the industry, his art has been featured in public spaces such as Sundance, Tate Modern, and Coachella. Milk’s been spearheading a few VR production companies, such as Within and the organization Here Be Dragons, which he helped co-found. Milk’s 2015 TED talk on virtual reality and empathy as well as his work at Within are efforts to present virtual reality which plays to viewers’ emotions. Through these narratives and even documentaries, Milk hopes to add depth by making empathy the focal point of his VR experiences.

Notable projects: Evolution of Verse (2015), Clouds Over Sidra (2015)

Matteo Zamagni

London-based New media artist Matteo Zamagni’s work is ambitious, to say the least. A seamless interdisciplinary blend of philosophy, music, geometry, and physics, Zamagni’s VR exhibit Nature Abstraction provides a microscopic look at representations of mind and matter. Achieved through Google Deep Dream, the recurring shapes and patterns resemble the ones seen in nature and organisms, making the viewer feel as though they’re discovering a living planet.

Notable project: Nature Abstraction

Char Davies, Ephémère (1998)

Char Davies

A true pioneer of VR, Canadian artist Char Davies is recognized as one of the founders of “bio-feedback” virtual reality. Her earliest projects go back to the mid-90’s, where the tech was still in its infancy stages, first appearing in video games. The installation Osmose defies conventions of VR at the time, utilizing motion-sensors, interactive graphics and sounds, and incorporating abstract and concrete imagery. Davies’ art explores how human consciousness permeates through space, taking the viewer through a journey within a place that resembles the natural world. The viewer’s own breath and movement affects their experience, which further blurs the lines of reality. Davies’ interest in the integration of biomechanics widens the scope of VR and its capacities, posing questions on which real-world aspects can be brought into digital simulations.

Notable projects: Osmose (1995), Ephemere (1998)

Stuart Campbell

Also known as sutueatsflies, Stuart Campbell specializes in interactive art and storytelling, merging mixed reality and comics. Campbell recently collaborated with other VR artists to work on a Doctor Strange VR project using Tilt Brush. His most prominent project however, is Sutuwerld (2016). Made in just two days, Sutuwerld stands out because of its sheer scale, a floating series of rooms that seems to extend for miles. Campbell intended to create a fantasy environment where viewers believed they were on a whimsical journey, one inhabited by giant robots, spiritual beings, and swimming whales in the sky.

Notable projects: SUTUWERLD (2016), Doctor Strange 360 (2016), Modern Polaxis (2013)

Take your art to the next level by working on virtual reality projects in our Creating for Mixed Reality Program. You can check out the first course below:

Exploring the Mixed Reality Landscape

Pacific Northwest College of Art