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Orbiting Earth in a virtual reality skull is a great way to remember you’re going to die

Orbiting Earth in a virtual reality skull is a great way to remember you’re going to die

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One of the first things artist Shaun Gladwell tells me about his new virtual reality installation, Orbital Vanitas, is that I am about to enter a real human skull. “Some people think it’s like, a fantasy skull,” he tells me. But no, every inch of its structure is based on what’s really under our skin.

I hadn’t really thought to worry about skull accuracy in a Sundance VR short, but it does feel like it matters — it’s one of the things that makes Orbital Vanitas more than just another interesting concept tossed into a headset.

Caravaggio Saint Jerome Writing
Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing

What’s the genre?

Memento mori.

What’s it about?

You’re in space, a giant skull is orbiting Earth, and over the course of a few minutes, your disembodied floating self flies through it.

Okay, what’s it REALLY about?

As the genre suggests, it’s about the beauty and terror of mortality. Gladwell says he got the idea from Caravaggio’s painting Saint Jerome Writing, which features the ever-popular symbol of our own impending deaths, as well as a halo that reminded Gladwell of a celestial orbit. “So I just put the skull into orbit,” he says. In the title, “orbit” also refers to the technical name of the skull’s eye cavity, and “vanitas” refers to the emptiness of death, as well as the mortality-focused artistic motif.

Since this is VR, though, it’s also just kind of about flying through a giant skull in space how that would be totally awesome.

But is it good?

I hesitate to make definitive judgments on things that very clearly come from the art world, especially when the term “virtual reality experience” conflates so many different genres. But Orbital Vanitas succeeds on a few levels. It’s visually compelling, especially the carefully rendered interior of the skull — which emphasizes that something I often mentally reduce to a cartoon sketch is actually a jagged patchwork of bone, by turns lovely and sinister.

The entire sequence is just the right length to feel like a pure moment in time: any shorter and it would be a tech demo, but any longer and I’d start expecting a larger narrative arc.

At Sundance, Orbital Vanitas is shown in something called the Voyager, which is like my beloved VR egg, except that it also automatically spins and tilts. This makes the flying feel more like, well, flying.

What emotions are involved here?

Wonder, contemplation, and vertigo.

How can I actually watch it?

Orbital Vanitas feels like a piece that’s meant to live in exhibitions, especially because the Voyager adds an interesting but cost-prohibitive dimension. But it’s also been released as a video by The New York Times, which means you can access it via the NYT VR Android or iOS app, either as a 360-degree video or a VR piece through Google Cardboard and Daydream headsets.

Update January 26th, 10:40AM ET: Updated to add New York Times release information.