My First Go at Tilt Brush : VR sketching

I get really excited about new technology: like, really excited. I’m talking insomnia and an intense-level-of-research-on-the-object-of-interest excited. We’re living in some ridiculously astonishing times. Our parents got innovations in the form of dishwashers and color TV: what the shit! Look what we get!!

This article is a breakdown of what I anticipated, experienced, and walked away with after trying out the HTC Vive and specifically, Tilt Brush: a drawing / painting tool that lets a user create lines and forms in a 3D virtual space.

What I anticipated

Basically for the last 2 months before heading back to the US where I knew I’d be able to purchase the HTC Vive and play with Tilt Brush I would get wound up just thinking about how it might work, and what I’d make with it.(Check out my review of HTC Vive hardware here if you haven’t yet…)

Now what was I freaking out about? This: 3D modeling and digital sculpting were about to be as easy as waving my hand neatly across a physical space. I would finally have an opportunity in my job as a designer to get out of a chair and away from a desk as I made something! Holy shit, holy shit: talk about an artist turned tech nerd dream come true. I watched the Tilt Brush demo: I fucking ate it up: yes! The video shows what looks to be a college art student, sans typical art materials, standing in a tiny living space: THEN — — she leaps into a virtual realm and everything is as it should be! I think if you would have shown this to me in the year 200o I would have cried and dropped out of art school.

What I experienced

I’m an XD (experience designer) so I’m going to break down what Tilt Brush was like for me into a few bundles: the physical experience, the interface and features of the tool (highlights / shortcomings), and my final takeaways.

The Physical Experience

When you first strap on the HTC Vive you have a feeling of visual and physical detachment. When you first get into a virtual space you’re struck by how empty and quite and…wow…I struggle for words. It’s like a sensory deprivation chamber. With just a few elements in it. Really, it looks and feels like the nether-space of Stranger things.

Once you get over the wow of where you are, you start to feel out your surroundings. Tilt Brush has some really cool carry over from tools designers will know well from Adobe Creative Suite…and these tools are now at the end of you hands like giant useful clubs.

Left: Tilt Brush color pallet. Right: From the Tilt Brush demo video. You can’t really see you’re physical hands or self in VR…It’s more like at left where you just see floating tools; but still neat.

The second striking sensation you have is that you will be able to see the hand held controls, but not your hands. Basically the tools seem to be held by some unseen force.

And third is the most challenging sensation: for some reason you just can’t seem to see everything well. It’s a bit like needing glasses, and immediately makes you a little dizzy. The image of the “brushes” palette at left shows very well what I’m talking about…you can see fairly well when objects are at arm’s length, but when you draw them in for a closer look, to read text or check out a brush stroke, they can seem fuzzy. Also, if you look into the distance and move your head too rapidly, things seem to shift a little slower than your eyes as you look around. I was running the Vive from a Razar laptop (which by the way, Windows OS aside was a pretty hot machine) and I’d been told the GTX 970M graphics card was going to keep up with Vive really well. By this I mean no lag, no shitty whatever.

Hmm. We’ll come back to this point later…

The Interface and features of the tool

I’d watched a few demo videos of Tilt Brush before I set it up so I’d already familiarized myself with a few of the great tricks this software has up it’s virtual sleeves. The video of Alix Briskham’s quick sketch shows off some of the best…

Artist Alex Briskham talks about Tilt Brush on the HTC Vive

Tilt brush has a range of brushes to choose from (very similar to Photoshop’s paintbrush and brush tip options) with the cool perk: some of the strokes you make are animated. Choose the “star” brush and you can leave a path of stars that twinkle. Choose a “neon” brush and you can leave a path of rainbow neon in the wake of your stroke; one that animates just like a real neon sign.

One of my first sketches: a little coffee cup. The bright stroke you see inside the cup had an elegant animation and sort of glowed and swirled. Really enchanting :)

I’ll give the disclaimer that I’m an artist as well as a designer, but still think it’s wonderful that my 3rd time in (after about 45min. of using this tool) I was able to make a drawing I really liked.

My first decent sketch in Tilt Brush: a deer with star-filled antlers, flaming footsteps and glowing guts. Took me about 45min to draw, using the HTC Vive running from a Razar laptop.

I was interested to find that some of the brush strokes I created had a look and form that felt more like clay or really heavy paint rather than seeming like a fluid acrylic paint or liquid ink. There are tools to help you erase, and to pick colors, as you might expect, though surprisingly you’ll find you can’t lighten a stroke or fade colors together. Strokes are single colored marks so adding a highlight to something requires a new mark: it was much like sketching with markers.

There is also a really helpful tool that you’ll see in the demo by Briskham, that allows you to draw in “mirror” mode so that you have a bit of an easier time adapting to working in a 3D space. In terms of saving or sharing your work, users can take “snapshots”, create gifs and film short videos of sketches as they work which is really cool.

In terms of saving or sharing your work, users can take “snapshots”, create gifs and film short videos (like the one above) of sketches as they work which is really cool.

I had my mom and sister both try out Tilt Brush and was curious to see that they had a pretty clumsy time beginning to understand how to make a basic 3D shape in a virtual space. For starters, they both began by writing their name (2D) and just observing that their movement left a mark. Then, to my amusement, my sister went to the next level and made a 2D drawing of a dimensional cube that was essentially flat in the virtual space.

It takes a minute to figure out how to draw in actual 3D. You’re previous references of how to draw something in a dimensional way aren’t helpful.

I finally coaxed her to make a few marks and then step around them. She started to see how to manipulate the situation, and that drawing in 3D was going to require a different depth of movement.

Initial stumbles aside, I think it says a lot that within less than 10min I was able to coax my less tech savvy family members to use Tilt Brush and that they were able to make something decent in their first few sketches.

Use the wand to point to a place in your environment, click, and BOOM: you’re standing in the place you’d just pointed to.

Tilt Brush also has a few new surprising tricks up its sleeves that help users work with a virtual object within a limited physical space. The “teleport tool” allows you to use the hand controls to point to a location in the distance, then click, and boom: you’re there. It’s a little bit disorienting at first, but it gets the job done and allows you move about an essentially unlimited virtual space without even taking a step.

Image credit: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_uk/blog/heres-how-to-paint-in-virtual-reality

There were a few things I was surprised about too…it was really curious not to have the ability to create 3D forms like a basic sphere or cube (lots of modeling tools provide these), the erasure tool removes whole strokes instead of just a part of a stroke, and while it was possible to save work by taking snapshots of videos, it was also really easy to accidentally exit the software and loose everything.

Still, the animated brush strokes were dazzling (even if a little silly), and as I mentioned before the “mirror” capability really reduced the learning curve for sketching in 3D.

The whole thing was really super exciting. On a pedestrian level I’m awed by the fact that I can actually experience a drawing space in an immersive way, and I’m awed that my movement within that space was tracked with such accuracy.

The responsiveness of pressure to width of brush stroke was really delightful (just like if you applied more or less pressure to a real paint brush) and some of the textures in strokes (like duct tape?) did a great job of toying around with what materials can be paint-like in an semi-realistic sketching space.

There’s a lot more to write about, but I’ll end it there and say that all in all my experience of the UI / UX in Tilt Brush was was highly memorable and thought provoking. The folks at Google have done a great job in creating something that cutting edge and also totally familiar.

Overall, you step away appreciating how even the most basic interactions like a mouse click might evolve over the next few years.

The Takeaway

Well I saved a little rocky bit for last.

While I was wild about a lot of my experience in Tilt Brush, the visual oddities I mentioned earlier were a deal breaker for me. The issue, which you can see in some of the snapshots people have posted online from within Tilt Brush, is that some objects and text you end up needing to read seem fuzzy at random times, not matter what you do.

This can give you an odd experience of depth that I can only parallel with the feeling of you get when you try on glasses that are of the wrong prescription.

What was absolutely intolerable was the lag I experienced in my field of vision when I turned my head.

I was only able to use Tilt Brush for a maximum of 15min at a time before breaking out in a sweat and then becoming extremely nauseous. I’m told it’s one of the most vastly improved experienced in terms of lowering the nauseating sensation of past sketching tools.

I desperately wanted this to be some fluke I could overcome because I was so jazzed about this whole thing, but in the end just thinking about using Tilt Brush makes me feel a little queasy.

Well, a little queasy, and a little hopeful.


Check out a few of the nice bits of media I came across while writing this article:

Here’s how to paint in virtual reality by Emerson Rosenthal

An early 2014 demo of Tilt Brush on Youtube

and the video of this guy just freaking out about his own Tilt Brush experience.

Read about my overall experience with setting up and using the HTC Vive. Spoiler alert: I returned it after keeping it for just 2 weeks.