Category Archives: Kijkdoos

Virtual Reality observations

When I started considering VR for new creations at Tale of Tales, I didn’t imagine a very big distinction between our previous work in realtime 3D (artistic videogames) and what we would do in VR. After all, I never thought of our work as screen-based exactly. For me what mattered was the creation of a living world on the processors and in the memory of a computer. The screen was just a way to show this world to a human.

So initially I thought of VR as just another screen, another way to see the worlds we create, not essentially different. But I was wrong. Even after only a brief period of investigation and prototyping it has become clear that the VR headset turns the computer into an entirely different medium! Everything is different in VR, few of the old conventions or habits are useful, nobody really knows how to use VR well yet. It’s as exciting as it is annoying.

What follows is a list of observations made in the last six months working on our project Cathedral-in-the-Clouds, an attempt to fuse the sacred and cyberspace in a contemplative experience. The text ends with an argument about the importance of imagination for art vis-à-vis its apparent absence in VR.

Time limits

Because wearing a head-mounted display is uncomfortable, my intuitive inclination in real time 3D to focus on the creation of open worlds must be tempered. Discomfort causes most VR experiences to be brief, and thus a certain linear design is preferable. Furthermore there is a radical rupture between being in the 3D world (while wearing the headset) and being outside of it (not wearing the headset). One cannot casually experience a VR piece. Which makes it challenging to create “art that becomes part of people’s lives”. I don’t want people to escape into our art, preferring to make a connection between the art and their bodies, their environments, their memories, their personalities.

Body size awareness

One of the things I like about VR is that it gives the user a certain awareness of their body by implying it in the 3D scene. Little of the trickery with scaling and framing that is common in videogames works in VR. Your body quite literally becomes the measure of all things. This makes working with scale very interesting: since we are all acutely aware of the size our bodies, it’s much easier to make big things look impressive, for instance.


Related to the awareness of the body’s size is the requirement of a certain level of visual realism in VR. The way we used to fake volumes and details with textures doesn’t work very well. But stylized shapes and toylike objects do. When they are realistically shaded, in fact they appear more wondrous than photographically realistic objects. The mind quickly adjusts and accepts a photographically realistic scene. But believing in the reality of something that we know cannot exist in the real world is a much more magical feeling.

Visual primacy

I don’t really feel immersed in a VR scene. Because VR is such a visual medium. The whole experience centers around what we see.

But it doesn’t offer the visual range that we are used to. A certain distance is required to see things, for instance. Things that get too close or very far become hard to see ( the documentation of the Unreal engine recommends putting VR objects in a range of 0.75 to 3.5 meters away from the virtual camera).

Another aspect of the visual nature of VR is that the only thing that matters is what happens in front of you, since humans simply don’t have eyes in the back of their heads. So despite the 360 degrees of potential, you only actually see what’s before your eyes.

Problematic sensuality

Contrary to the awareness of scale, the visual primacy in VR more or less reduces your body to a set of eyes. You become body-less, a (human-sized) ghost, a spirit. You can’t distinguish things that happen very near to you. As opposed to a third person avatar on a regular screen who is clearly immersed in the fictional scene and whom you can easily empathize with. VR feels more detached. It’s purely visual and it feels a lot less sensual.

The sensations in VR are triggered by the proximity to objects and characters. It feels very voyeuristic but you never feel embarrassed. In part, I think, because VR is so extremely private.

Uncanny safety

One interesting sensation in VR is vertigo. It feels very nice to stand on the edge of an abyss because in VR you always feel perfectly safe. Nothing bad can happen to you while you are wearing the headset. The world looks real but it cannot harm you. Paradoxically VR allows us to escape into reality. The sensations feel physically real, but you know you are always perfectly safe.

The nausea that VR can cause in a user, more or less obliges designers to be exceptionally cautious. You can’t mess with people in VR because it’s so easy to make them physically ill. This certainly reduces the palette available for artistic effects.

VR feels so real to our bodies that VR experiences need to be a lot safer than actual reality. Our mind then quickly gets accustomed to this unrealistic level of safety and basically becomes untouchable, unmovable, an impregnable fortress.

Immersion without imagination

VR is touted as the ultimate answer to our desire to be immersed in a simulation. But because VR so directly puts us in a physical environment, it bypasses the imagination that is necessary to deeply engage. It’s purely visual, purely physical. It triggers physical reactions but does not stimulate thinking or feeling. Further hampered by the awkwardness of the headset that you can never forget about.

VR, counter-intuitively, creates a distance between the scene and the spectator. You are always outside, not involved, a fly on the wall. You have no presence in the virtual world. The virtual world does not believe you exist. At least not as a person. Maybe they recognize you as a camera, an observer, someone they have no emotions or thoughts about, someone they merely tolerate (causing one to wonder about the reasons why). You’re in the middle of the action but you cannot be harmed. You are perfectly safe emotionally. If only because you need to constantly monitor how you are doing physically (am I not bumping into things in the actual space where my body is? Am I getting nauseous? Do I look weird wearing this thing? -Is someone watching me?- Mustn’t forget to fix my hair when I take it off).

The experiential realism of VR is exactly its weak point. Because art tends to affect me most where it deviates from the familiar. And art is where I find the deep emotions and thoughts. Realism creates distance. And it distracts, rather than immerses, if only because it forces our brain to be continuously amazed by the simulation, drowning all other reactions we might have.

We don’t need imagination to believe in a VR scene. But without imagination, it is much harder, if not impossible, to access the areas in our being that bring great joy and deep insight. Imagination creates an emotional bridge to the object we are observing. Without imagination, we remain distant and separate.

Artistic problems

Despite my objections, I believe wonderful things can be created in VR. Providing its artistic problems are solved. And I worry a bit about that. I have seen this before. Videogames also have an enormous amount of artistic problems and they never got solved. Artists rarely lead videogame creations. The tools are unsuitable and the corporate structures don’t allow it. And much like VR, videogames are dominated by technology. So engineer after engineer tries to solve the artistic problems. While the artists are all but chased away from the medium by press, corporations and the public alike.

So here’s to hoping that artists will be encouraged to solve the medium’s artistic problems. Otherwise, just like videogames, VR will remain unfulfilled potential driven by desire never satisfied.

—Michaël Samyn.

The Synthetic Image

We have always felt a kinship with the Old Masters. Since we use computer technology in the modern age, our interest in such analog art forms, figurative presentation and often religious subject matter may strike as odd. But next to the practical similarity – we use the high technology of our time, just like the early oil painters did – we also share an interest in what I like to call the synthetic image.

The synthetic image is created by a human. It can be, and often is, modeled after life but the shape and color and texture are entirely man-made. Somehow such images can possess a power that goes beyond any image that is created mechanically, either directly through photography or with significant aid of optical instruments.

This is not a theoretical principle for me. I have learned through experience that synthetic images tend to affect me more. I don’t know if this is true for other people as well.

Maybe a synthetic image can be so powerful because it is a subjective creation that appeals to the subjective perception by a spectator. A mechanical image, created through photography for instance, on the other hand, is never entirely subjective. There’s always an inhuman aspect to it. Maybe that creates a distance that reduces the power of the work.

The curse of photography

Long before photography, painters developed the realism of their work. And while paintings from the baroque, rococo and salon periods certainly have their charm, they never move me quite as much as early paintings do, with their wonky perspective and skewed proportions.

When photography grew out of the desire for realistic depiction, it more or less ruined figurative painting. In a very direct way it coincided with the birth of abstraction in art. One can imagine many painters wondering about the point of painting figures or landscapes when there was a mechanical device that could reproduce reality in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the effort. And maybe it is only now that photography has become intensely ubiquitous that we can start to understand the great value of non-photographic, synthetic images.

Photography is a wonderful tool. And out of photography some great new art forms were born. But it has ruined the more traditional forms of depiction. Even when artists today draw and paint figuratively without referring to any photographic images, their work never affects me as much as the old art does. Because something about it still reminds of photography, which hollows out the experience. Photography has changed the way we look at reality. So much so that it has become difficult for us to create a representational image that is not infected by the photographic eye.

A painting that looks like a photograph is always disappointing to me. Instead of experiencing a transcending, universal, symbolic image, we see a picture of some guy or some woman. Flat, meaningless, empty. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t escape the impact of photography on our eyes.

The power of creation, and the opportunities offered by realtime 3D

I think the computer offers a way to escape the stranglehold of photography: through realtime 3D. Just like the pre-photographic painters, computer artists create images out of nothing. We place vertices in virtual space, connect them with lines and fill up the triangles between them. We can’t really use photographic references because we are working in three dimensions and because the computer demands specific construction methods to allow for processing.

When I study early renaissance painting, especially the Flemish Primitives, I sense that they too were thinking of their practice more as modeling virtual worlds than creating pictures of reality. The religious subject matter helped the desire to transcend the mundane. And the newness of the technology stimulated invention. Those early paintings are as much about evoking physical sensations of material and space as they are about creating shapes. All of this is familiar terrain to the realtime 3D artist.

Realtime 3D offers us once again a way of creating synthetic images, potentially with the same power of early painting. This does require a conscious effort of the artist to move away from the photographic image and towards a more symbolic one. We need to resist the temptation to imitate reality offered by a technology built by engineers with no pictorial imagination. Because then all we have is that reality. And not something that transcends it.

The computer screen, with its two dimensions, is not our canvas or panel. We are creating realities in virtual spaces. Virtual spaces that are alive through the processing power of the computer. We are not creating images but objects (much like sculptures, but even paintings are objects! –unlike photos which are prints on paper or light on screens). Even if there is no visible difference (when displaying our work on a screen), our objects continue to really exist in the virtual (unlike photos or films that are only pictures of a reality that does not exist anymore).

The experience of art, or being in the presence of the work

I have never had a deep aesthetic experience with a reproduction of a painting. The magic only happens in the presence of the actual object. It doesn’t even need to be the original work – this is not fetishism – but it needs to be a real painting or sculpture. Photographic reproductions don’t work for me.

Even though realtime 3D does not possess the physical properties of painting or sculpture, a similar effect can be observed. Realtime 3D exists in another type of reality: it is running – right now – on a computer.

One needs to be in the presence of the real work of art to have a deep aesthetic experience. Digital art is real when it’s running on the computer’s processors. Rendering kills the art. Screenshots don’t work, even videos don’t have the same effect (linearity kills realtime). We have to be in the presence of a software application that is running now, in the same time as the one we inhabit, for the art to affect us deeply.

And we need to embrace the synthetic nature of these artworks. By constructing realities out of nothing with means that circumvent the photographic way of seeing, we can, once again, approach a power and mystery of art.

—Michaël Samyn.







Creating realities, then and now

This was written in the evening of 25 November in Madrid airport following a brief visit to the Prado museum.

After seeing the contrast between the old Flemish Masters, the “Primitives”, and later painters such as Rubens and Velasquez, it struck me again how a transition seems to have happened from an initial fascination with three-dimensional space to a growing focus on the two-dimensional picture plane. The early painters in Flanders did not depict reality. They created reality, a small piece of reality. This is further confirmed by the care that is put in the frames, which are often beautifully sculpted and painted. Typically, a frame would have a bottom part that is slanted, suggesting a floor or windowsill, further encouraging the interpretation of the painting as a space, not a picture.

I relate to this practice deeply, as this is what we, realtime 3D artists, are doing as well: we create a three dimensional world that is experienced in two dimensions (the screen) and we invite the spectator to imagine the three dimensions, to imagine that what they are seeing is real. And very often, rather than offering escape to a fictional reality, we want our work to become a part of your life, to connect with the reality you find yourself in. This is definitely the case for the dioramas of Cathedral-in-the-Clouds.

Rogier van der Weyden: The Descent from the Cross

Rogier van der Weyden: The Descent from the Cross – All of the figures seem to be standing in a box shaped exactly to snugly fit their bodies.

Rogier van der Weyden: Virgin and Child
Rogier van der Weyden: Virgin and Child – The frame continues in the painting, or the painting in the frame. One reality crosses over in another. Also notice how the bottom of the frame is flat, further creating a connection with the spectator’s world.
Rogier van der Weyden: Miraflores Altarpiece
Rogier van der Weyden: Miraflores Altarpiece – Each scene fits precisely within its frame, inviting us to imagine that these are three-dimensional boxes that form a part of our reality, rather than depictions of another.

The pictures by the Flemish Primitives may not be as realistic as those by later painters. But their invitation to imagine the reality (the box) that their characters inhabit feels very genuine. The paintings invite intimacy, privacy, contemplation. As opposed to Rubens’ work for instance: many of his scenes I’d be afraid to step into. It’s all very spectacular.

Pieter Paul Rubens: The Adoration of the Magi
Pieter Paul Rubens: The Adoration of the Magi – An amazing masterpiece, but not what we are going for in our dioramas.

I think part of the reason why the work of the Flemish Primitives is so unique is that it is early. Oil paint had just been invented and artists were experimenting, trying to figure out what to do with it. Another similarity to our current situation! I feel encouraged to embrace our amateurism and to develop a unique way to use this medium that does not rely on the tricks offered by the professionals.


Cathedral-in-the-Clouds KS campaign draft

I have started the creation of the Kickstarter campaign page for Cathedral-in-the-Clouds. We plan to launch the campaign on 21 October. Please have a look at the current draft and let me know your comments and suggestions. The video, illustrations and campaign image are just early sketches and placeholders. And some illustrations are still missing. But I’d like to take your input on board when continuing.

Would you back this project?

And if so, what reward would you choose?

If not, what’s keeping you?


PS: Don’t share the Kickstarter link. This is just for you.

PS 2: Here’s a new preview link. The video and page are now almost complete in terms of content. Let me know what you think!



Thanks for your feedback on last week’s introduction of our new project codenamed Kijkdoos! We’ve developed the concept quite a bit, in part as a result of trying to figure out how to present this project on Kickstarter (more about that in a future post).

We had already been thinking of physical presentations of one or more Kijkdoos pieces in a room. And we had been fantasizing about a Virtual Reality simulation of such an exhibition, possibly with additional “magic” (i.e. things that wouldn’t be possible, or very difficult, in the real world). This idea has now morphed into a general umbrella that covers the entire concept. We’ve named this project Cathedral in the Clouds.


Not only have we sang the praises Saint Bavo cathedral in our home town of Ghent as a source of inspiration so many times that at one point it was mentioned on our Wikipedia page, we have also, alongside our desire to work with Christian iconography mentioned before, had several ideas for videogames that take place in simulated churches. So the puzzle pieces are coming together. It’s very exciting!


Our cathedral will only exist “in the clouds” that is to say in Virtual Reality. It’s an almost imaginary place that we intend to expand as new Kijkdoos pieces are being created. For every Kijkdoos piece we will add a chapel or niche to the cathedral building where the art can be experienced, much as is the case in actual cathedrals –except that in cyberspace there’s no physical constraints to expansion.

We don’t expect VR — which should enter the market in the fall or early next year, I believe — to become accessible to a wide audience very rapidly. As such, a certain pilgrimage will be appropriately required: to VR goggles connected to a computer that can run the simulation.

The individual pieces — what this project is all about — will still be shared as separate apps, downloads, web sites or videos, whichever medium seems to fit. In a way the Cathedral is mostly a name to bundle the entire project.

Although we are very excited about building a virtual house of cyberworship! Especially since we’re embracing the idea that it takes years, decades to build a cathedral. I imagine it will start as a rather sparse place and become increasingly ornate as the project grows. I hope that we can use the opportunity for patronage in much the same way as traditional churches: people fund certain parts of the church or pay for the creation of a particular altar piece, sculpture or painting. There’s wonderful opportunities here for Kickstarter rewards. But I hope this sort of patronage can continue beyond that. We’re building a temple for our cyber-community!

It was in the Gothic Revival Notre-Dame Basilica in Montréal where, in 2011, the desire to create art with Christian iconography really set its fangs in us never to let go.

As you might have gathered from the logo design (which is by no means final: this is not commercial, we don’t need brand consistency), we’ve been inspired by Neo-Gothic (or Gothic Revival) style lately. It’s a style of architecture and decoration that peaked in the 19th century. Neo-Gothic artists rejected the rationalism that came out of the renaissance in favor of reviving the style of medieval cathedrals. A typically romantic movement that often produces very ornate spectacles (if somewhat less devout than the original).

Once again, we’ve started a Tumblr log where we collect reference materials for the project. Have a look:

There’s no way you could be as excited about this project as we are. But I hope you like where we’re going!


PS: Feel free to ask questions in the comments. We have no secrets for our patrons.



Auriea and I have had a desire to create pieces depicting typical Christian themes for a long time. Probably because we often visit museums and have had very deep aesthetic experiences with especially late Gothic, renaissance and baroque art. We are not Christians ourselves but some depictions of the Madonna and Child, the Pietà, the Crucifixion, the Visitation, the Annunciation, the Last Judgment and so on, have deeply moved us. In part through the power of beauty to connect with the cosmos but also because of the emotions they inspire: love, empathy, patience, kindness, and so on. These images touched us so much that we have long wanted to use them in some way in our own medium.

Over the years we’ve returned to this desire again and again, but it wasn’t until very recently that finally an idea came to us that we really felt could work. Taking some distance from games probably enabled this. Because the idea is very simple. Not a game at all.



I want to create living virtual sculptures. Mostly depictions of a single human body, posed to fit in a rectangular box: so either standing up or lying down. The idea is to present this body more or less in life size. So your screen would act as a sort of window through which you would always only see part of the body and need to slide horizontally or vertically to see the rest. Eve with a serpent, the body of Christ, Judas hanging, Maria Magdalene covered with hair, a nursing Madonna, etc. Subtle changes in the box demonstrate that this is a real time scene, not a still image. The body, if alive, is breathing, maybe even looking at you, blood is flowing, insects, dust, light. We expect this to be a very intimate experience. In many cases a change will happen over time, sometimes dramatic (a box filling up with the blood of the Lamb) but most often very slowly. In such cases, the experience would have a beginning and an end.

There’s no other interaction than sliding. But we are playing with the idea of using the image from the monitor’s camera (if one is present) to influence light effects in the virtual scene.

The experience would be one of contemplation, of course. And as such the spectator would be required  to spend some time with the piece. During this time they can figure out what the image can mean for them. (We recently discovered that there’s a name for these sorts of images: Andachtsbilder.)

We’re considering different media for production and distribution. Definitely downloadable software running in realtime on your own devices. But also the web, video, physical installations and Virtual Reality.

In a way this is a combination of two previous games: the box from Vanitas filled with the still body of Salome from Fatale. These happen to be our least popular games. But maybe two negatives make a positive. Not that that matters. We're going for intensity of experience here, not mass entertainment.
In a way this is a combination of two previous games: the wooden box from Vanitas filled with the still body of Salome from Fatale. These happen to be our least popular games. But maybe two negatives make a positive. Not that it matters. We’re aiming for intensity of experience here, not mass entertainment.


Aesthetic style

Another long time obsession that I want to address in this project is our desire for an aesthetic style of figuration that exploits the strengths of realtime 3D (while rejecting its weaknesses). This means embracing the synthetic nature of 3D modeling and rejecting photographic realism (and other forms of imitation). In art history we’re especially inspired by the Flemish primitives and Northern Renaissance. So on the edge between symbolic and naturalistic. But polygons and pixels are not paint and panel. We want to find a digital equivalent for the techniques of Van Eyck, van der Weyden, Christus, et al, not imitate the end result.

We have tried to do this in every figurative game we’ve made so far but there’s always been a million other things to do and we were never quite able to nail it, to our great frustration. Since in this project, the depiction of the body is the entire point, we can devote all of our attention to figuring out a form of representation that is true to the medium, and to our contemporary era.

The Salome character in our game Fatale (on the left) is probably the most beautiful character in all of our work. It was designed, modeled and textured by Takayoshi Sato, one of the best game artists around, famous for his work on the early Silent Hill games. The Madonna on the right was painted on a piece of wood by Jean Fouquet in the 15th century. One could argue that Sato’s Salome looks more realistic. But for our current project, Fouquet’s Madonna feels more suitable. Not that we want to imitate paint on panel but the stylization and exaggeration of the form and the appropriateness of the execution to its medium are what we want to find an equivalent for in realtime 3D. Because we believe that this will help contemplation. We wouldn’t dream of ever hoping to reach this goal. But it’s something to aim for. And the contrast is sufficiently severe to serve as a useful reference.



This is quite an elaborate project. Especially since we want each piece to be utterly lavish. There’s no cutting corners here. Every piece needs to be excessive, have an almost decadent feel to it: a very deliberate and detailed presentation that doesn’t do much, that just sits there, waiting for your contemplation. Much like the old altar pieces that often took years to make.

So how do we fund the production of such an ambitious and somewhat crazy project?

I want to try a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Not because it seems like an especially suitable environment to fund digital art (since this is obviously not a game). But because this is the project we are most passionate about and I believe many Kickstarter backers (myself definitely included) support the passion of creators more than they want to possess the objects being created.

But it’s a difficult project to present. A description of it may sound rather dull. And I don’t want to present a rough mock-up or prototype for fear that people might draw the wrong conclusions about the potential of the end result. Kickstarter is about fantasies anyway. It’s about supporting dreams, not buying products. That’s how I see it, a least.

An additional problem that worries me is the subject matter. Christianity is not very popular in our circles. Some atheists can respond extremely aggressively against mentions of religion, especially Christianity. I will try to circumvent this by stressing that I am doing this project being an atheist myself focusing on the humanist aspects of the messages in these scenes, and the social benefits of contemplation and meditation. And I hope that my desire to embrace my own cultural roots, as a Flemish atheist brought up in Catholic schools, can justify my use of these themes (in contrast to, for instance, the Western appropriation of Eastern religions for the purpose of meditation).


I’d love to hear how you feel about this idea!
Do you find it interesting?
Do you think it can work?
Can we get it funded?
Do any questions come up?