Elaine Hoey and the Future of Virtual Reality

Elaine Hoey and the Future of Virtual Reality

Words by Annique van Niekerk

Elaine Hoey is an emerging Irish artist who has garnered extensive critical praise for her virtual reality piece The Weight of Water. Her work has won her the prestigious Taylor Art Prize,  awarded by the RDS and previously received by the likes of Louis le Brocquy and Dorothy Cross. 

I met Elaine in the warmly lit surrounds of NCAD’s Luncheonette for a conversation about her work. Elaine’s electric red hair is hard to miss, yet perfectly compliments her calm, articulate demeanor. Elaine is in the middle of an accelerated Master’s degree, which means she is condensing two years of work into one. Similarly, she taught herself the fundamentals of virtual reality programming while completing her honours level Bachelor of Fine Art degree in a remarkably short two years. “I had to find my focus quickly. I didn’t have as much time as other students, because I came straight into the third year of a four year degree.” Elaine had no programming background before diving into VR in 2015 – a fact which is almost unbelievable considering the exquisite visual impact of her work. It has also earned her Student of the Year in her graduating class of 2016 and runner up to the NCAD staff prize, among other accolades.


The Weight of Water was made in response to the refugee crisis. It is a reactive 360 degree world, housed within a headset. First navigating a physical installation, the viewer must step beyond a barbed-wire fence and sit, caged in, on a swivelling chair. The headset goes on and the viewer is transported to a small boat, adrift on a digitally rendered ocean. It’s dark, and you are surrounded by shrouded figures. A woman speaks.


‘Intense’ is the word I have most frequently heard when viewers describe their experience of the piece to me. Many people resist staying for the entire 8 minute duration of the piece, some removing the headset almost immediately. Each participant experiences it in their own unique way. The Weight of Water is calm and slow paced, which I found poignant. It has also been described as ‘scary’ or ‘intimidating’ – an understandable reaction according to Elaine. She reckons this is partly because of her eye-contact coding. There is an algorithm in place which creates a natural-seeming interaction with the 3D animated characters in the piece, they periodically look directly at you. VR has made the return of the gaze possible. It steals away the safety of voyeurism.


“There is a strange space of apathy between a viewer and a screen. Watching a TV screen, a cinema screen, a computer screen – there is a passivity to the experience,” Elaine tells me. The viewer becomes a set of invisible eyes; they see, but they cannot be seen in return. They are removed from the experiences of the characters in whatever scene they are looking at. VR creates a paradox when the distance between screen and eyes narrows to centimeters and the reactive technology of ‘looking around’ kicks in, the experience can become a bit too intense for some. It places you into a foreign body. The narrative of your identity is dictated by the creator of the piece, as if you have no control over your circumstances. The inherent powers and privileges experienced by the person in real life disappear as they take on the identity of the VR player-character. Elaine is investigating the neuroscience involved in VR. There is a strange cognitive dissonance that occurs when you know you’re looking at a virtual world, but still feel the urges to touch non-existent objects around you. MIT and Stanford have been exploring the psychological effects of VR immersion for decades. The perfect induction of presence, the feeling of really being somewhere else, is something VR developers strive for. The strong memories I have of floating in that boat, with cold wind blowing on me, tells me that day is not too distant. Elaine’s piece will soon be used to ‘test for changes in empathy’ by Trinity College professors in the Gaming for Peace project.


Elaine has many criticisms of virtual reality. It is an insular experience, which literally puts the viewer at the centre of the world. She feels that it reflects the echo chamber that the internet, and particularly social media, has become. So much of our lives are lived virtually that this really is nothing new, but VR can be something more. VR and 360 degree filmmaking is already taking storytelling into incredible new experimental areas. It can already be accessed from the comfort and familiarity of your own smartphone using apps like Within with a Google Cardboard headset.


Though she uses video game engines to generate the worlds in her VR art, Elaine reiterates a few times during our discussion that VR is not a toy, and if viewed as a toy it will be severely limited in the scope of work that could be created using this technology. I asked Elaine if she thought the powerful experience of VR would be exploited by regressive attitudes. “VR is just another technology, you can do truly anything with it, creating any world your imagination and technical skill will allow. Eventually it will reflect human nature.”


Elaine’s next piece will critique the system of VR itself and will function on a different level of engagement. She has started working with a Vive –  a more intuitive and interactive VR, which allows the participant to move around in a space independently, uncontrolled by a programmed narrative. Counting Paola Antonelli of MoMA and Denis Hickey of IMMA among her fans, it’s clear I’m not the only one already excited to attend the NCAD MA show this year.


The Weight of Water was exhibited in the Science Gallery as a part of the Design and Violence traveling exhibition curated by MoMA. It will next be shown in the RHA for Futures, Series 3, Episode 1 17 March – 23 April.

Words by Annique van Niekerk