By Muriel Vega/Hypepotamus
Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have often been seen as technologies built specifically for the gaming and entertainment industries. These computer-generated interactive environments create an immersive experience for the viewer, either through specialized equipment such as a headset (VR) or imposed onto the real world where anyone in the area can see it (AR). Ideal fodder for a film producer or video gamer looking to take their experience to the next level, for sure.
However, the VR/AR industries can no longer be pigeonholed into just entertainment. By 2026, VR and AR are projected to be an $80-billion industry. The Southeast, with Atlanta leading the charge, is an essential part of this growth. From reporting on current events to treating PTSD victims at Emory University Hospital and recruiting potential students to Georgia Tech using VR headsets, VR/AR (together sometimes called Mixed Reality) has proven to be versatile across many industries.
“We chose to use VR for this project because of the potential to create realistic and immersive experiences that are unavailable in any other medium. It was also our intention to seize the opportunity to be on the forefront of experimentation with this new media,” says Atlanta-based artist Kris Pilcher about his project, The Dream Collection Agency.
The agency, started in 2014 by Pilcher, designer Kevin Byrd, and programmer Dale Adams, collects individual dream stories (you can donate yours on their site) and recreates them in virtual reality to be shared with others. The dreams are then stored in a searchable database where dreamers can see connections with other dreamers and expose them to a larger collective subconscious.
“VR gives artists an opportunity to create entire worlds and very personal experiences. The possibilities are endless given the proper resources,” says Pilcher. “A virtual reality experience can illicit a very emotional response and allow users the opportunity to experience reality from points of view that are impossible to replicate on the physical plane.”
Those emotional responses are also what captivated filmmaker Gabriela Arp. Arp’s Puerto Rican family has a long history of Alzheimer’s, which an estimated 5.1 million Americans suffer from. Arp’s grandma and three aunts are part of those statistics.
“As a family, we’ve seen this disease slowly take away our women. This spurred a great deal of fear for the next generation of women in our family,” says Arp. Defying the usual focus of what Alzheimer’s patients lose from the disease in, Arp chose to focus on what remained. Most of the women in her family, despite having advanced symptoms, seemed to hold on to a handful of memories that they revisited again and again.
“My mother told me that my abuelita often recounted a trip they had taken as a family to a secluded beach in Puerto Rico,” Arp says. “My mom and her brothers and sisters had snuck her a cigarillo with marijuana as opposed to her normal cigarettes she smoked. She’d always bring up and laugh at the memories from that night, even as Alzheimer’s continued to take its toll.”
Once she arrived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to pursue a master’s degree in Visual Communication, Arp came across the school’s new VR equipment and it inspired her to create a project that could honored those memories that remained. TRACES, her VR documentary about a young girl that recounts her time growing up near Mason, Tennessee, was born.
Arp put out a call to various Alzheimer’s organizations and was connected to 88-year-old Willie E. White, who would become the main character in TRACES. Arp worked tirelessly to record interviews with Willie and the family. Throughout the film, you can hear Willie’s audio from their interviews together and see her memories recreated by actors in different environments — an old church, fields, and more.
“The viewer travels with Willie as she searches for the words to one of her favorite songs and the meaning of memory in this new and fragmented landscape,” Arp says. “Virtual reality created a way to immerse others into that memory space and experience a different thought process. It allows you to see Willie’s memories as she may see them, which to me illustrates truth in a much deeper way than if her actual memories were displayed as ‘factually accurate’ artifacts.”
Before she passed away, Willie was able to view the film and laughed through each reenacted memory. After being fragmented for several years, the film brought the family together as they cherished what remained of Willie after her passing.
AR technology can allow users to interact with local art communities as well and help close the gap between them. “We've made use of AR to experiment with how people interact with art and their surroundings,” says interactive artist Killamari, whose innovative work through The Lotus Eaters Club can be seen throughout the city of Atlanta and beyond. “Bringing it to the street makes our art and the AR experience super accessible.”
The club uses AR triggers, small artwork installations throughout the city, to encourage people to download their app and watch the installations come alive when users point their phones to see the art through the app. Now, they are moving into merchandise, murals, and coloring books to level up the user experience.
“We want to make the experiences even more interactive, where you're not just viewing animated artwork, but you can actually affect what happens to it. Someone will love it, someone will hate it, and someone else won't care about it. Either way, we'll keep the conversation going,” says Killamari.
Pilcher sees the merger of tech and art as inevitable.
“Technology is integral to our world and to many people’s entire existence,” Pilcher says. “If art is a reflection and exploration of the world around us, then I believe it is important to address that fact. I also believe that technology is giving us the ability to manipulate the world around us in ways that haven’t been fully explored. I like to be an explorer.”
As AR and VR become integral media to share stories and the South leads the charge in pioneering the technology, these artists, the original observers of the world, are jumping into the conversation and finding their voice at the overlap.
“People here are eager to collaborate,” Arp says. “I think this fosters a more organic collaboration and a willingness as a community to take risks and fail. I think the South is finding its voice in the art, technology, and film world, and I’m really happy to be a part of cultivating that in the small ways I can.”