Virtual Reality Art: Tilt Brush

From Rembrandt to Renoir, from Picasso to Pollock, for centuries painters have created masterpieces on canvases with their brushstrokes. Yet, a new medium of art is surging in popularity and edging toward the mainstream. Google’s Tilt Brush application allows artists to paint in virtual reality with a headset and two hand-held controllers. With this novel technology, artists can now swap flat canvases for infinite space, switch messy palettes with clean controllers and transform everyday sights into sci-fi fantasies.

In January 2017, Google launched its Tilt Brush Artist in Residence program involving more than 60 creatives from a variety of disciplines including graffiti artists, graphic designers and cartoonists. Both seasoned VR designers and budding young coders unleashed their imaginations to create their own virtual worlds in the new medium.

Tilt Brush product manager Elisabeth Morant said that the Tilt Brush Artist in Residence program provided “the time, space, and resources for creators to explore, reflect, and produce meaningful content in VR.” The program is structured to support the creation of content in a new medium whether or not the artist is familiar with VR, Morant said.

Tamiko Thiel, an artist who has worked with virtual and augmented reality mediums for more than 20 years, likened the quality of Tilt Brush to calligraphy and fingerpainting. In her project “Land of Cloud,” Thiel said she used a combination of squiggly motion and sweeping strokes to create a sensation of physical flow, almost like performing a dance.

Creative producer at media company UploadVR Danny Bittman agreed with the physical nature of painting with Tilt Brush. “It is more natural to express the ideas in the mind with body motion that involves almost every muscle in your body,” Bittman said.

However, Bittman expressed that he would like to see a more intuitive user interface with gesture-based controls. “It should feel like you’re a magician by the end. It shouldn’t feel like you are using software,” he said.

Estella Tse, an artist in the program with a background in animation and web design, described Tilt Brush as game-changing. “This is the first time in human history we can walk through paintings,” Tse said.

Unlike other art forms, Tse said that Tilt Brush allows users to view the process of how other artists created their works. Tse explained that the piece she created made use of Tilt Brush’s playback feature to show the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Tse said she intentionally created a process piece which unfolded sequentially instead of aiming for a finished product.

“There are no standards right now,” Tse said. “What works on a 2-D interface, like having X as a close button, we don’t know what that is in VR. No one knows what the best practices are yet.” Tse said that to exit the VR game “Job Simulator 2050,” players have to eat a burrito. Tse joked that perhaps an “exit burrito” would be the new design to close an application in VR.

Studio artist Darcy Gerbarg fuses traditional art-making techniques and digital technologies to create 3-D VR paintings on canvas. Working with New York University’s Future Reality Lab, Gerbarg took snapshots of her 3-D paintings in Tilt Brush from all different directions then printed them out on canvas.

According to Steam Spy, a statistics service provided by the largest gaming distribution platform Steam games, Tilt Brush has approximately 146,000 Steam users and had more than 12,500 active players in the last two weeks. The application costs $19.99 on Steam.

Head of production at Kaleidoscope Jill Klekas is optimistic that storytelling and art in VR will continue to work into the mainstream media consumer’s life. Kaleidoscope is an organization which supports independent VR artists and showcases the best VR art.

Klekas gave the example of Jimmy Fallon playing VR Pictionary on “The Tonight Show” with celebrity guests as a way of bringing Tilt Brush to the masses. Celebrities including Scarlett Johansson had to guess each other’s 3-D doodles. “I’m sure there are people who have purchased a VR Ready PC and Vive or Rift because of this,” Klekas said.

Thiel said that since the early 1990s, virtual and augmented reality technologies have attempted to become part of the mainstream consciousness. Thiel said this current wave pioneered by Facebook with Oculus Rift was likely to be more permanent than previous ones. Not only is the technology more advanced, but VR can be applied in journalism and entertainment, Thiel said. “If everyone’s using it as part of their social media, it’s here to stay, it’s not going to go away.”

However, Thiel believed augmented reality, which is the layering of computer graphics on top of our physical world, will more likely become mainstream than virtual reality technologies. “AR lets you be in a virtual space in the real world,” Thiel said. This is unlike VR, which brings users into an entirely artificial environment.

Thiel predicted that “probably a lot more people will have virtual objects in their augmented real world, maybe more so than going into completely enclosed virtual worlds.”

Gerbarg, who displays her VR art on physical canvases, suggested that we would still want tangible objects in the virtual space. After all, we are corporeal beings and our material environment still exists around us, she said. Painting in the virtual world “is only a piece of what I want to do, it’s not the whole story,” Gerbarg said.

NYU computer science professor and virtual reality expert Ken Perlin is the founder of Holojam, a research project dedicated to developing technology that allows groups of people to interact with each other while being immersed in VR. Holojam’s focus is to facilitate collective VR experiences such as through playing a team game or working on other people’s sculptures, Perlin said.

Perlin described the gadgets consumers own today as belonging to “transition technology,” and predicted that in five years everyone would switch from smartphones to wearables. “We will just be transitioning to a different kind of human usage of technology,” he said.

Bittman, who wants to dedicate his life to creating art in VR, said he has clocked about 1,100 hours in Tilt Brush since he downloaded the application. “A large part of my life is spent in VR. Strange,” Bittman said.

However, Perlin declined to define the future as “virtual reality.” “We are completely virtual. Virtual is what we call future technology that hasn’t happened yet,” he said. When it does happen, “We won’t even think about it, it will just be part of reality.”


Written by ZiQi Lin in May 2017 for Journalism Inquiry with Professor Fran Stern

Photo taken from Google’s Future of VR event 2017

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