Virtual Art

From Leonardo

Virtual Art

From Illusion to Immersion

By Oliver Grau

An overview of the art historical antecedents to virtual reality and the impact of virtual reality on contemporary conceptions of art.





An overview of the art historical antecedents to virtual reality and the impact of virtual reality on contemporary conceptions of art.

Although many people view virtual reality as a totally new phenomenon, it has its foundations in an unrecognized history of immersive images. Indeed, the search for illusionary visual space can be traced back to antiquity. In this book, Oliver Grau shows how virtual art fits into the art history of illusion and immersion. He describes the metamorphosis of the concepts of art and the image and relates those concepts to interactive art, interface design, agents, telepresence, and image evolution. Grau retells art history as media history, helping us to understand the phenomenon of virtual reality beyond the hype.

Grau shows how each epoch used the technical means available to produce maximum illusion. He discusses frescoes such as those in the Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii and the gardens of the Villa Livia near Primaporta, Renaissance and Baroque illusion spaces, and panoramas, which were the most developed form of illusion achieved through traditional methods of painting and the mass image medium before film. Through a detailed analysis of perhaps the most important German panorama, Anton von Werner's 1883 The Battle of Sedan, Grau shows how immersion produced emotional responses. He traces immersive cinema through Cinerama, Sensorama, Expanded Cinema, 3-D, Omnimax and IMAX, and the head mounted display with its military origins. He also examines those characteristics of virtual reality that distinguish it from earlier forms of illusionary art.

His analysis draws on the work of contemporary artists and groups ART+COM, Maurice Benayoun, Charlotte Davies, Monika Fleischmann, Ken Goldberg, Agnes Hegedues, Eduardo Kac, Knowbotic Research, Laurent Mignonneau, Michael Naimark, Simon Penny, Daniela Plewe, Paul Sermon, Jeffrey Shaw, Karl Sims, Christa Sommerer, and Wolfgang Strauss. Grau offers not just a history of illusionary space but also a theoretical framework for analyzing its phenomenologies, functions, and strategies throughout history and into the future.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262072410 430 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 89 illus.


$37.95 T ISBN: 9780262572231 430 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 89 illus.


  • ...a volume that will likely be used as a canonical text in the study of virtual reality...

    Patrick Lichty

    Intelligent Agent

  • Grau traces the lineage of virtual reality as farback as the frescoes of a villa in Pompeii.

    Scientific American

  • ...Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion puts forth the sort of provocative insights that any Newromancer fan can appreciate.


  • Oliver Grau has given us one of the more fascinating works this year.

    Guy Van Belle

    European Photography

  • Highly original...

    Alison Abbott



  • Oliver Grau expands notions of immersion with a comprehensive overview of artistic meditations on illusion, presence and space. Using historical and innovative media-art project examples, he offers multiple perspectives on the evolution of our world-view. No doubt this volume will be a useful resource for any serious practitioner and/or theorist engaging the merging of art, science and technology.

    Victoria Vesna

    Chair, Design and Media Arts, University of California

  • The highly ambitious task of locating the latest image technologies within a wider art-historical context has now been accomplished.

    Friedrich Kittler

    Humboldt University, Berlin, and author of Gramophone, Film, Typewriter

  • Grau's Virtual Art opens the door onto a significant new approach to media analysis by focusing in depth on a particular kind of digital art—the attempt to create immersive environments. The combination of media archeology with careful analysis of both the possiblities and limitations of the impulse to put the viewer inside the artwork will make this book a valuable resource to both practitioners and theoreticians.

    Stephen Wilson

    Professor of Conceptual and Information Arts, San Francisco State University, and author of Information Arts

  • Long established in Germany, media studies is just beginning to get hot in English-speaking countries. Grau's book makes a crucial contribution to this field by raising the bar for any future archeology of a virtual computer image. Equally at home in art history, media history, and new media art, Grau situates immersive image spaces of new media within a rich historical landscape. A must-read for anyone interested in new media, visual culture, art history, cinema, and all other fields that use virtual images.

    Lev Manovich

    author of The Language of New Media