Photo credit: Theresa Danna-Douglas

There’s no doubt about it virtual reality is awesome.

Although it’s been around for decades, VR has been catching on more recently among storytellers, scholars, archivists and more. It’s safe to say there’s a lot of potential in VR outside of just video gaming.

In fact, one example of VR’s vast capabilities can be found in the Knowledge Center here at UNR.

On Tuesday, July 17, a team of digital initiative and virtual reality specialists in the KC launched a new program called the Reno Street Art project, which allows people to access an archive of street art in Reno and experience the murals and paintings within a three-dimensional space through virtual reality. People can even become street artists themselves in a virtual game that allows them to spray paint in various settings.

“Our focus has been on creating new ways to support and engage our communities by using technology and resources available to libraries,” said Amy Hunsaker, a digital initiatives librarian who began the project.

The RSA team launched their program with a celebration in the @One, where artists and locals came together to enjoy displays of Reno’s street art and try out the VR equipment. Attendees lined up to try on the VR headsets, as artists featured on the tour created new murals through VR just a few feet away. Artists at the event included Andres “Vaka” Martinez, Joe C. Rock, Jennifer Charboneau and Anthony Ortega. These four seemed to enjoy their VR experiences thoroughly, as it allowed them to digitally create and collaborate on murals in an unusual way.

“I think the VR mural painting game is pretty interesting,” said Charboneau. “The event was a great preview for the community to see everything the technology can do within a creators realm.”

Ortega also commented on the benefits of art through VR.

“What makes the spray paint VR game so appealing…is that they can experience what it feels like to paint large scale graffiti without the possibility of being arrested!” he said.

Managed by digital humanities specialist Laura Rocke, the project began in July of 2017 and was finished earlier this year. It features a digital archive of over 200 murals in downtown and midtown Reno.

“I felt it was my duty to help preserve, at least digitally, the beautiful artwork that decorates the walls of Reno,” Rocke said. “Since street art is ephemeral and older murals are constantly coming down while new ones are going up, I wanted to make sure that the creative and hard work of the artists wasn’t lost.”

Along with the help of Jeannette Martinez, an art historian who helped curate the art and interview artists, Rocke also installed an art exhibition in the @One which features over 100 images of various murals and paintings in the biggest little city. The images can be seen along the walls of the @One and surrounding the pillars. Like the archive, this allows murals that have been taken down or painted over to live on.

“Street art is unique in that it can represent an individual’s identity as well as a collective identity,” said Martinez. “Reno street art…is a visual indication of the positive direction the city of Reno is heading towards. Furthermore, start art is beautifying our city, which makes our home a more intriguing place.”

In terms of experience and interaction, it seems as though VR was a no-brainer to the people behind the project.

The VR team for RSA was made up of a group of specialists in the @One, including Michelle Rebaleati, Luka Starmer and Daniel Fergus, as well as students Hadi Rumjahn and Tyler Goffinet. Rebaleati, Starmer and Fergus developed the art tour and game, while Rumjahn and Goffinet worked on perfecting the programs and making them more “playable”. The group—minus Goffinet, who graduated this past spring—also work within the @Reality, which features a variety of other VR programs along with the street art project.

Rebaleati and Starmer began working on RSA shortly after it was initiated, and collaborated with the street artists to provide an experience that would uphold Reno’s “art town” reputation. Not only that, but they also made it possible for people with accessibility issues to experience some of Reno’s most hidden artwork.

“[Virtual reality] is really important because it can bring people to places they’ve never been, they’ve never seen, or they might not be able to go,” Rebaleati said. “A lot of these places are sometimes in alleyways or kind of hidden and tucked away…so by having the VR component, it can feel like they’re really there.”

The archive of street art consists of murals from 2017 and early 2018, which Starmer says not only beautify the city, but prevent vandals from tagging the city with “lewd or unrefined” art.

“When a mural goes up,” he said, “a lot of graffiti writers and taggers that do it illegally won’t touch those walls out of respect for other artists.”

The virtual art tour and spray painting game can be found in @Reality, located inside the @One in the Knowledge Center. RSA will also be making headlines across seas in Germany this fall, where Amy Hunsaker and Laura Rocke will be attending a library conference and discussing the project.