‘Art of the future’ at San Francisco augmented reality exhibitions

San Francisco’s Old Mint is home to two new exhibitions that showcase new ways to experience three-dimensional digital art.

The first exhibition is called “Verse: Art of the Future,” and while you might imagine it is announcing a poetry slam, this “verse” is short for “metaverse” and the “art of the future” that it displays is best experienced with augmented reality technology.

The second, “The Unreal Garden,” describes itself as an “intentional journey through a fantastical reality that offers discovery, empowerment and connection.”

The exhibitions, each billed as the first of its kind, offer glimpses of how digital art will transform galleries, museums, schools and entertainment in the years ahead.

‘Verse: Art of the Future

According to its promotional materials, the “Verse” exhibition is “like a silent disco for holograms,” calling out the image of a cluster of dancers in headphones dancing together, even though each is hearing a private feed of music different from the other dancers’.

San Francisco is the leadoff location, and the partners who are presenting it expect to open the same display around the country at a pace of two cities per month in 2022. 

But unlike an exhibition of tangible works of art, the “Verse” exhibition will not have to leave San Francisco to be displayed in other locations. Because the works of art are digital images, they can be duplicated and displayed in an unlimited number of places at once.

Ray Kallmeyer, CEO of Enklu, the company that is in charge of the technology, sees the exhibition as the forerunner of a sea change in the way that museums, among others, will curate exhibitions in the future. 

Kallmeyer believes that if museums are to stay relevant for Gen Z and Millennial customers, they will need to adapt new technologies. “Institutions that don’t modernize are left in the dust,” Kallmeyer said in an interview with Jason McDowall, host of The AR Show.

A visitor to “Verse: Art of the Future” explores the digital art in the vault only visible through a HoloLens 2 headset or a smartphone app. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

The “Verse” exhibition takes place in a seemingly empty brick corridor in the basement of the Old Mint. Entering it has the feeling of being let into one of those secret speakeasy bars. 

You peer down a long, dim corridor, and off to each side, there are a succession of vaults, complete with heavy steel doors bearing the gilt-lettered name of The Hermann Safe Co. of San Francisco.

The vaults themselves — there are 10 or 12 of them on the sides of the corridor — are largely empty, though a few chairs are scattered about. 

You might think that the area is just a holding pen where you wait before you are let into the exhibition proper, but it gradually dawns on you that the people walking around in headsets and exclaiming to themselves aren’t just waiting; they are actually seeing the exhibits.  

The headsets they are wearing are HoloLens 2 smartglasses made by Microsoft, and they retail for between $3,500 and $4,500 apiece, according to Stephanie McDermott, head of growth for Enklu.  

The vaults in the basement of San Francisco’s Old Mint appear to be empty to the naked eye, but they are currently filled with digital art. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

When the headset is on and properly calibrated, the wearer sees a small floating yellow arrow, like a cursor on a computer screen. When he or she moves his or her head, the cursor moves. With 15 seconds of practice, the wearer can “aim” the cursor just by tilting his or her head.

Aiming is rewarding. Throughout the exhibition the wearer will encounter hovering yellow bull’s-eyes, and when the cursor hits a bull’s-eye, it explodes into a shimmering paragraph of highly readable text that explains an exhibit in the collection. 

It is as if one of those little brass or wooden labels that you’d see in a regular museum suddenly came to life.

The text varies in length and depth, but the holographic signs are in far greater detail than what might be found in a typical museum. 

The bull’s-eyes do not just announce and describe the works of art; there are five that explain what an NFT is and another that tells the storied history of the Old Mint. 

Aiming the cursor inside the HoloLens 2 smartglasses at a bull’s-eye is a rewarding experience for a visitor to “Verse” because holographic text explaining the exhibit appears. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

The NFT explainers are numbered, and they are scattered around the exhibition so as you wander about, you start to look for the next one in sequence. They create the feeling that the viewer has joined in a treasure hunt, and the cursor is a kind of high-tech flashlight that illuminates the quest.

The HoloLens 2 uses augmented reality technology. Unlike virtual reality where the wearer is essentially removed from the visual world, augmented reality lets a wearer not only see holographic images, but also the physical surroundings. 

Thus, two dozen headsetted viewers can wander through the exhibition without stumbling over one another. The technology also allows people to be aware of and compare notes with their companions as they walk together. Unlike VR, AR can be a shared experience.

The centerpieces of the exhibition are the holograms themselves; seemingly three-dimensional works of art, hovering in the air or adorning the walls.

The works vary mightily from one another.

“Bot,” by Ray Kallmeyer — he is an artist as well as Enklu’s CEO — is not easy to describe.  

The main corridor of “Verse: Art of the Future” appears to be empty until you are fitted with a headset and you can see art directly in front of you. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

Imagine if Rodin’s “Thinker” were about 5 feet in height and instead of bronze, and its shape were defined by veins of many-colored electric lights coursing inside the body, the way an alabaster light fixture appears to be lit from within.

As you approach the piece, you realize that the figure is sitting on a cube, different in texture than the sitting figure but as clear-edged and real-seeming as a block of stone, at least if the block of stone were buzzing with electrical current. 

As you circle the work of art, you get the full three-dimensional experience; the back of the piece is the “Thinker’s” back, humming with light pouring through the skin. The skin itself is alive and moving.

The work makes you think of how people sometimes say that a huge mountain is “so big that it makes its own weather,” because an aura of light surrounds “Bot,” though it is not directly connected to the holographic structure. 

As you are inspecting the work of art, you get a surprise — another viewer in the gallery walks up and, seemingly unaware of the work, walks right through it. 

Nothing is knocked over. Nothing falls to the ground. It is as if they walked through a puff of hot steam.

A visitor to “Verse: Art of the Future” surveys holographic images that only they can see. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

In one of the vaults, there is a fire-breathing dragon roughly the size of a German shepherd, if a German shepherd could hover in mid-air and was created from dozens of colored electric beams all throbbing and pulsing simultaneously.  

As you face it, you realize the dragon is oscillating: The head stays in place, and the body goes around in circles behind it, fire emanating throughout. 

It looks very hot.

You are tempted to reach your hand into the dragon’s body to see if you can feel anything, and you do it, even though it feels like it should be forbidden. As you reach your hand out, you expect to hear someone in authority hiss at you, “DO NOT TOUCH THE ART!”, but nobody says a word.

The dragon does not react to your disrespect, and when you look at your arm afterward for burn marks, there is no sign that for a moment it shared space with a fire-breather. 

In another vault, a family of five is being fitted into headsets. Kids over 5 are allowed to wear headsets, although for those under 10 it can be a challenge to get the headsets to fit perfectly. 

Visitors peer into a vault holding a holographic exhibit at “Verse: Art of the Future.” (Photo courtesy Enklu)

As the family’s headsets are getting adjusted, one of the kids — a boy who seems 9 or 10 exclaims — “I can see through walls!” — as if he just discovered his secret superpower. 

A quick experiment confirms that one cannot actually see through the physical walls of the vault, but the exclamation is not completely fanciful because if you look at a hologram you both see into its center and out the other side.

McDermott says that “we’re the first hologram art gallery in the world. We are the first to show NFTs and crypto art not only in the metaverse, but in our reality, which is really exciting.”

The “Verse” exhibition is trying to be a lot of different things at the same time, and the partners are selling different types of tickets to prove it. 

For $20 you can get a “social pass” that gives access to the exhibition but not the use of a headset. That does not mean that there is no visual experience at all, because with a downloaded app and a mobile phone, one can scan the QR codes scattered throughout the exhibition and see flat versions of the artwork.

In “Verse: Art of the Future,” you can buy a “social pass” that lets you scan QR codes, some of which let you see two-dimensional versions of the 3D digital art on your smartphone. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

Access to a HoloLens 2 headset requires a general admission ticket costing $39 and allows the viewer to see the works in full three-dimensional holographic form. 

There are 20 to 25 headsets at the exhibition, according to Yongzhi Xu, the general manager of the show, and they rotate among viewers with downtime for cleaning and recharging. The promotional materials estimate that one should expect a half an hour wait before being fitted into a headset, though the wait varies depending on the day and time. They say that touring the exhibition will take another half hour.

There is also a “patron” ticket available for $85 that allows the holder not only to access the holographic experience, but also sends them home with a “collectible NFT” of a unique digital artwork depicting a lotus flower.

While the idea of a take-home NFT might seem as gimmicky as getting a T-shirt at a Giants jersey day, NFTs are actually a major part of the exhibition. 

NFT is the highly hyped shorthand term for “non-fungible token,” a line of code on a public blockchain that records the unique owner of a work of digital art. 

A “Verse” visitor who purchases a “patron” ticket also receives an NFT of a digital artwork depicting a lotus flower. Each lotus artwork sold as an NFT with this type of “Verse” ticket is unique. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

As one wanders the exhibition exploding bull’s-eyes with the headset’s cursors, each exhibit reveals a legend that says that it is an NFT and available for purchase. The price is generally quoted in Ether, the native currency of the Ethereum blockchain. Kallmeyer’s “Bot,” for example, is available for 3.5 Ether, roughly $9,000 at March 14 prices.

Kallmeyer is very excited about what the exhibition presages for digital artists. “There’s a ton of 3D artists who, until now, have really been unable to find any sort of wage,” he says. By presenting digital art in real-world settings, visitors can start to understand how investing in NFTs makes sense. 

As of March 20, the NFTs on sale at the exhibition have been purchased by more than 500 first-time buyers, according to Kallmeyer, generating $39,000 for the artists. Kallmeyer says that this technology will “transform a lot of business models and specifically empower creators with new income streams.”

In this respect at least, the “Verse” exhibition is a hybrid between a museum display and an art gallery where the work is for sale.

Visitors gather to enter “Verse: Art of the Future” at the Old Mint. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

But it really is not the same as anything in the default world. Not only can the whole exhibition be replicated somewhere else without disturbing the original exhibition, but “we can also change out all the art,” McDermott says. “If you were to send me 100 pieces of art right now … I’m in Raleigh, North Carolina; I could take your pieces and implement them in San Francisco and change the gallery completely.”

Kallmeyer says that even if the same digital art is being displayed, there is a different feel to the same exhibition when displayed in a different physical space. For example, an individual work can be blown up to a larger size, completely changing the viewer’s experience of the same piece.

Another thing that augmented reality brings to the party, according to McDermott, is the immersive aspect of the experience. The technology uses “proximity triggers” so that as a user reaches a certain physical place in the exhibition, “it triggers something,” McDermott says.

This opens a whole new dimension in storytelling. 

This aspect of the technology is on display at the other exhibition at the Old Mint. 

A neon sign reading “FROM THE FUTURE” adorns the corridor at “Verse: Art of the Future.” (Photo courtesy Enklu)

‘The Unreal Garden

“The Unreal Garden” is a family-friendly mix of real-world structures and virtual imagery that together create a dense and otherworldly garden. Think of it as a combination of “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.” 

The exhibition “features magic mushrooms, fractal flower beds and a rotating gallery of digital artworks including Android Jones’ fractal trees, Scott Musgrove’s jellyfish and John Park’s hummingbirds.”

“The Unreal Garden” exhibition is as much of a show as a static exhibition. 

“The Unreal Garden” interactive digital exhibition takes place in a single room at the Old Mint. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

McDermott describes it with obvious relish: “You go through, and you have this little butterfly that leads you through, and she makes jokes the whole time. You can feed hologram rabbit spirits that you find on the ground. You can interact with butterflies. There are whales that fly overhead.” 

She describes it as an “immersive event of magic and fantasy and excitement.”

The promotional materials say, “The Unreal Garden is a space of possibilities filled with magical flora, fauna and artworks, a space to be transformed by your presence and energy.”

McDermott says, “coming to an immersive event, you’re really being thrown directly in the middle of it. You are in the movie, in the game and the idea. It’s a very exciting place to be.”

A visitor to “The Unreal Garden” at the Old Mint tries to pinch a “power crystal” hologram seen through their augmented reality headset. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

This is the promise of the technology. The viewer has agency; “The Unreal Garden” is a place where “everyone has their own unique experience.”

“The Unreal Garden” is accessed in the same hall at the Old Mint where the “Verse” exhibition is located and uses the same HoloLens 2 headset.

When you enter the garden, a trail of dots on the floor suggest a way to proceed, though the suggestion is just a suggestion and you may explore in whatever direction moves you. 

The immersive aspect of the technology is enhanced by “power crystals” scattered through the exhibition. Like in a video game, you may reach out and, by slowly pinching your fingers, take a crystal and gain energy that allows you to see more things as you wander. 

In “The Unreal Garden,” you actually can look through walls, or at least ceilings, for when you look up you see yellow and green mushroom stalks and vines spouting tendrils twisting 20 feet higher than the physical ceiling.

A visitor at the “The Unreal Garden” grabs at a hologram to advance the story. (Photo courtesy Enklu)

“The Unreal Garden” is all in one room.

As you wander, you experience three different “acts,” each with a different motif. Each act seems to fill the entire room, and you wonder how that can be, but then you realize that the three acts use the same physical space but what you see varies by the path you have taken and what you have seen so far. Two people standing shoulder-to-shoulder and looking in the same direction might see different things depending on the route they took the spot. It is as if all three acts of a play were being performed at the same time on the same stage, but each theater-goer could see them one at a time. 

The two exhibitions are separately ticketed and both are expected to continue through June.

Entry times for “Verse: Art of the Future” are available between 12:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 12:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m Sundays at the Old San Francisco Mint, 88 Fifth St., San Francisco (enter from Mint Plaza). Timed tickets are $20 for a “social pass,” $39 for general admission with a headset rental and $85 for a premium ticket, which is general admission plus a collectible NFT. Proof of vaccination is required for visitors ages $12 and up. For tickets and more information, visit https://versenftcryptoart.com/san-francisco/.

“The Unreal Garden” is open 12:30 p.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 12:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m Sundays at the Old San Francisco Mint, 88 Fifth St., San Francisco (enter from Mint Plaza). Tickets are $45-$80. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.theunrealgarden.com/.

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