How Virtual Reality Re-Imagines the World of Norman Rockwell

I recently stepped inside the paintings of Norman Rockwell through virtual reality. After viewing Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, I experienced them in an immersive way that only VR can provide. Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience demonstrates how VR can educate by complementing, not replacing, the physical world — but only if VR offers compelling content.   

About the Four Freedoms

In 1943, Norman Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms series — Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear – to visualize the four freedoms, or essential human rights, espoused by Franklin Roosevelt in a 1941 State of the Union address. Upon their publication in The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s  Four Freedoms became immensely popular. They expressed a nostalgic, reassuring image of America at a time when World War II had made the world seem darker. The Four Freedoms ensured Norman Rockwell’s fame as an artist whose work expressed American ideals in a way that resonated with a mass audience. 

Many decades later, the Four Freedoms are on display in a traveling exhibit that began at the New York Historical Society on May 25 and will continue until 2020. The Henry Ford has hosted the second leg of the tour since October 13 and will do so until January 13. Seeing these paintings in person is like viewing the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. They don’t need virtual reality to convey their power. But as I discovered, VR helped me appreciate the artist and his times.

Rockwell Up Close

I came across a VR viewing area near the end of the tour, after I’d spent a Sunday afternoon studying Rockwell’s works up close, including Freedom from Want, which has become perhaps the most cherished if satirized vision of American bounty. 

As with just about every famous art I’ve seen reproduced somewhere, Rockwell’s paintings are more vivid when you see them in person. By contrast, the VR viewing area consisted of a spartan arrangement of chairs and headsets. You always know when you’ve entered the VR zone: no matter what the context, you’re greeted by a clusters of disconnected people gazing into headsets unaware of the real world around them. But I’d already gotten what I came for. I was game for spending some time in the VR zone. What did I have to lose? After I was given a brief explanation of how the VR experience works, I strapped on a headset and let my mind wander.

Intuitive VR

The experience was as intuitive as VR should be. From a virtual viewing room, I could step inside different Four Freedoms paintings to explore a re-creation of the settings suggested by Rockwell’s art. For example, Freedom from Fear depicts a mother and father tucking their children in bed for a night of peaceful, carefree sleep. The father holds a newspaper with a headline that suggests the London Blitz bombing occurring across the Atlantic. 

Through VR, I explored the room in more detail as well as the family’s home as it might have looked in 1943. I came across a silver-colored penny on a dresser. When I clicked on the penny, words appeared onscreen to explain that the 1943 silver-colored penny was a wartime coin issue made of steel and coated with zinc. It was necessary to create pennies from steel because copper was needed to make shell casings and munitions. Throughout the house, I found many other belongings from the era, including a civilian air spotter guide, blackout curtains, comic books, and trading cards.

VR expanded my understanding of wartime in the United States by inviting me into Rockwell’s time rather than separating me from it with a panel. Rockwell’s paintings engaged and taught me more about Rockwell and his vision. VR taught me more about Rockwell’s world. 

VR and AR Take Hold in Museums

Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience constitutes a laid-back experience as far as VR goes. Touring the paintings requires not much physical effort beyond tilting your head to navigate. This experience is designed to ease you into VR from a sitting position. Created by Academy of Art University, San Francisco, and the Norman Rockwell Museum, Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms is one of many ways museums are using VR and augmented reality (AR) to become more immersive. For example:

  • The Franklin Institute transports people into space, the ocean, and the human body with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets. 
  • “David Bowie Is,” the critically acclaimed David Bowie exhibition, will become an AR app following a multi-year run at museums ranging from V&A Museum in London to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
  • The Kremer Museum, launched in 2017, features more than 70 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings exclusively through VR. It is believed to be the only museum to exist entirely within VR.

And many, many more examples abound, as museums employ technology to remain relevant with audiences whose expectations are set by immersive games, music, and movies using multiple devices and screens. 

Why the Four Freedoms VR Experience Succeeds

In this context, Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience succeeds. Here’s why:

  • Most importantly: the content is effective. The idea of using VR to visit the settings suggested by the painting is inspired, and the execution delivers with interesting examples such as the steel penny. 
  • VR complements the in-person experience. Placing the VR stations at the end of the tour means that VR does not compete with the landmark paintings. You first get the measure of Rockwell’s work before experiencing the paintings from a fresh perspective with VR.
  • The low-key experience suits the topic. You explore the paintings at a leisurely pace, befitting the idyllic setting of Rockwell’s paintings. This is no Lone Echo or Star Trek: Bridge Crew, nor should it be. Norman Rockwell’s work evokes a simpler, homespun time, like comfort food. His paintings do not lend themselves to an overwhelming sensory experience. 
  • It does not cost extra. I was more likely to strap on a headset and geek out with VR because I didn’t have to pay more. I’d already paid for the entrance to the exhibit when I bought my ticket for The Henry Ford. 

The experience also underscores the limitations of VR as a technology for mass consumption. At the end of the exhibit, I walked away, probably never to experience Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience again. VR requires repeated use by consumers to take hold. And with the exception of gaming and entertainment, VR lacks the requisite content to justify the expense of buying the equipment and the time required to delve into VR. Put another way: it’s one thing for museum goers to use VR as part of an experience they were going to pay for, anyway, especially when someone else is providing the equipment. But asking them to make an investment into VR for common use in their homes? That’s a totally different story unless they are into gaming. 

But these limitations are only a problem if you expect VR to become a popular everyday consumer experience. VR continues to take hold in industries ranging from education to training (to wit: STRIVR works with businesses such as Walmart to use VR to improve employee performance with training). Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience demonstrates one useful application.

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