The RPS 2016 Advent Calendar, Dec 5th –Tilt Brush

The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive were both released in 2016, but what was the best VR experience of the year? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games of the year, daily, and behind today’s door is…

Virtual artistry tool Tilt Brush.

Alec: Tilt Brush was pretty much the first thing I used once I had a VR headset. I have played and ‘experienced’ a great deal of virtual reality software since then, but Google’s wizardly air-painting toy remains the only thing I’d name a VR essential.

Killer app? Well, maybe. There’s something of a glass ceiling to it – if you’re a standard-issue human being like me, you start off using it, believing you’ll be creating miraculous things in short order, then finding that there’s a hard limit to your own patience, foresight and even imagination. Tilt Brush itself? No such limitation. The stuff that actual artists and sculptors are doing with it is flat-out incredible, and it’s that which makes this particular VR app still make me feel that I have slipped into some other plane of reality.

A lot of VR software has killed my enthusiasm for the concept. Either the tech’s not truly ready yet, or the human brain simply burns out on awe all too soon. Every time I revisit Tilt Brush, something as simple as painting a hoop on the sky reminds me that, with the right software, VR is the coolest toy there ever has been.

It’s a powerful tool for artists, yes. It’s also magical sparklers for anyone.

Pip: This is the VR toolset which got me really excited about the medium. The controls were pretty straightforward (although very menu-ish as opposed to totally reconceptualised for VR as with Fantastic Contraption) and once I knew how to select a mark-making type and a colour I was good to go.

I think it’s accessible to everyone in the sense that pens and paper are accessible to everyone, and the drawing directly into 3D is wonderful and strange so I think pretty much everyone will get something out of the novelty factor, but what you do beyond that will depend on your own skill with the medium. I can imagine drawing a house as part of a demo and being pleased but never going back, and I can imagine opening up the toolset and learning how to build entire landscapes or stage sets or fantastical immersive artworks to share. You get glimpses of that when you load up the Tilt Brush projects uploaded by artists and watch them ping into life around you. Parrots with glowing neon feathers, fruit bowls, buildings…

I think my favourite thing was playing with the sense of scale. I ended up sketching out a tree but only the parts of the trunk and leaves and roots I could reach so it was this strange form, half poking into the virtual sketchbook world, half still hidden.

There are other ideas I have, too, which exploit the fact you can walk through surfaces and the way that leads to moments of discovery. It’s also really cool to just put the headset on and kind of… curate your own sensory deprivation tank. You’re in this empty world, and you get to make it whatever you like. I get that Tilt Brush only really opens up if you have both the inclination to create and a smattering of ability when it comes to turning your ideas into three-dimenional lines. But it’s a fantastically legible toolset which is being used to create some truly extraordinary experiences.


  1. Eleven says:

    The most exciting thing about VR right now is also it’s biggest problem: The tropes that define it as a medium haven’t been set in stone yet.

    Its a bit like that period in the late nineties when CDROM became a thing, but no-one really knew what it was for yet. The sudden step change from 1.44 Megabyte floppies to 600MB discs led to an intoxicating explosion of possibilities, where developers used to cramped constraints suddenly found themselves free. There were grand promises of multimedia experiences that would shatter the constraints of conventional media, entire libraries at your fingertips, and, gasp, full motion video. Just like TV!

    There were a billion wacky experiments (Microsoft did a multimedia wine guide?) before the successful ideas finally won out, the standard conventions were defined, and some commercially profitable genres were invented. (Well, at least until we realised that FMV games were crap, and the internet killed Encarta)

    That’s pretty much where VR is at the moment. It’s fun to watch, because bedroom coders keep coming up with something revolutionary every couple of months or so, but it’s also quite draining, as 90% of everything being released is boring once the novelty has worn off. I’m fairly certain that VR as a concept is here to stay, it allows the communication of scale and velocity like no other medium, has new genres waiting to be created like games-as-improv acting, and has all kind of mostly unexplored potential such as that sense of intimacy you didn’t know you had until a zombie invades your personal space. What form VR takes however, is still open to question.

    • Ooops says:

      Your comparison with CD-ROM in the 90’s is really interesting.

    • emertonom says:

      This is very much where we are with it right now. The online communities around it are a little frustrating, though, because there are so many people who are in a rush about this–a new game comes out, and there’s a rash of posts about how “from now on, all games should use the locomotion system from X” or “every dev needs to duplicate the throwing mechanics from Y.” No, we’re not there yet. We’re at the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” phase.

      Part of what makes Tilt Brush notable in this respect is that it’s still under active development, but lots of people have it. E.g., they added the ability to change your size and teleport from place to place, both after the software had been out for a while, once people started to gravitate towards those mechanics. Most stuff in VR is made by small studios, so either it’s expensive but they’re still developing it, or it’s cheap and they’ve moved on. This one having Google money behind it, though, is still a pack-in for a lot of Vive owners, and also still actively maintained. Earth is likely to be similar. I really think they’re going to be some of the defining experiences for VR for the next couple of years.

      But I’m also eager to get a look at oculus’s 3d modeling program that’s coming with touch. That could be the next big thing for VR.