Gustave Caillebotte — Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877)

What makes up a moment?

Nothing happened, but the image lives in my mind, vividly. I don’t remember the date, or occasion — it was a small and simple millisecond in which my mind was quieted by the beauty of it all.

I was returning home around 10pm after a long day at class. Turning onto Ridgeway from Chicago’s bustling Belmont Ave, I started down the street, now only a block from home. Under dim streetlights, I gazed down a quiet residential avenue of orange sidewalks and shadowed stoops, brick walls cast yellow by the same illumination; a light breeze rustled my sweater on the otherwise lukewarm August evening, affirming my choice to put on the extra layer of clothes that evening; leaves and branches rubbed shoulders above, a chorus of grassy whispers; a wash of passing cars, ebbing and flowing, receded into the background behind me; my shoes scraped lightly against the textured concrete. Somehow all these sensations melded together into a moment of pure contentment. From within me sprung an emotion of satisfaction in the harmony of all these perceptions — a happiness, peace derived purely from this sensory consonance.

There’s a common saying among those in the education profession that “you don’t fully understand something until you can teach it.” Those in the creative arts understand a similar notion — namely, that “you don’t fully understand something until you can recreate it.

From my past life as a music producer and sound designer, I can appreciate the challenge of recreating sensory environments that feel “realistic” to a listener. As an example, consider the process by which a sound designer might go about creating a realistic, believable aural illusion that a door slams right just behind a listener’s head. First and foremost, the sound designer must capture (through recording) or generate (through synthesis) a strong representation of the formal aspects of the sound — namely, the high-frequency squeal of the metal door hinges scraping against their bearings, as well as the low-frequency impulse (“bang!”) of the wooden door slamming against the frame. Even with an excellent base audio sample, a sound designer must have the ability to recreate, generate, and sculpt auxiliary sounds emerging from room acoustics and reverberation. This is further complicated when the sound designer tries to precisely place the sound in 3D space. She must possess a nuanced understanding of the binaural properties of human hearing, and account for the neuroscience that helps a person understand where an aural stimulus originates. Of course, the formal aspects extend far beyond the described creak-and-bang. Consider the minor-but-crucial jingle of the doorknob rattling in its casing, the lock components clanging against each other; the vibration of the wooden wall housing the doorframe; the “swoosh” of displaced air.

All of these elements are required to create a convincing artificial stimulus. We hear doors slam often — it’s a nearly universal human experience. And there are many powerful, visceral emotional connotations that come from a slamming door — alarm, fear, confusion. But how many of us have a vocabulary for describing the elements that make up this type of stimulus?

Creatives who have tackled such hyper-realistic projects know that with the process of emulation comes great challenge, but also a profound reward. The creation itself — whether a painting, sound piece, video, sculpture — is an exciting and satisfying endpoint, especially if executed masterfully. But the creator gleans a much deeper benefit from the long, meditative process of creation. The procedure of study, of dissection, of deconstruction, then reconstruction, of understanding the core character of a thing, but also the ways in which its essence relies on ambience — light, acoustics, texture, material, temperature — this intentional and disciplined wallowing in all aspects of a subject is one that is an powerfully enriching human experience.

Herein lies the beautiful paradox of virtual reality as a creative platform. In an era where we’re daily pulled away from the real world and into the digital, it may seem that virtual reality poses the ultimate threat to our ability to be present in real space, to appreciate our true and natural habitat. To an extent, I believe this threat to be a legitimate one. But I have come to recognize that for creators of immersive virtual experiences, the creation process itself will be one that enriches our human understanding of reality along dimensions never before explored in conjunction.

Impressionist painters have closely studied light, color, and its emotional influence on scene and subject. Renaissance sculptors have studied human form and created helpful rules for its reconstruction. Foley artists have analyzed and synthesized the ambient aspects of our aural experience to create convincing sound environments for film.

Yet, in these past forms, the sculptor did not need to understand sound, and the painter did not need a mastery of haptics to excel at their medium. But the virtual reality artist sits at the intersection of all these forms. Because she seeks to emulate moments, like my quiet evening walk down Ridgeway, she needs to coordinate and conduct a broad symphony of senses. Once niche practitioners in the realms of game-world development and 3D art, these artists will soon see their form become more and more accessible to the public consumption and appreciation. And as the art practice of virtual reality grows, I hope we collectively gain a fuller, more colorful appreciation for the pockets of experience that form the essence of our daily existence.

What makes up a moment?

Someday soon, VR artists may be the best suited to answer that question.