Skip to main content

Tilt Brush: A Closer Look At The Birds And The Trees

Virtual branches

Over the weekend I decided it was time to dive back into Google's VR art project, Tilt Brush [official site]. I hadn't played it since a brief demo out in Seattle but I had an afternoon of waiting for a Sainsbury's delivery* ahead of me and access to an RPS Vive. That header image isn't mine, by the way - it's by Tristan Reidford! I'm more about trying to master the basics right now.

Something I was fiddling with initially was the background. You get to sort of set the skybox to different things as a backdrop for your work - black or white offer you a plain background but I wanted to do something foresty so I picked the night sky with all the stars overhead.

Then I set to work on my tree. Oil paint was the brush I was using for the most part. It lets you paint these textured ribbons in the air, marking out imaginary solid shapes in three dimensional space.

Pretty soon you learn to work with the sweep of your arm rather than against it because you're drawing with these expansive gestures.

I was making a tree so the arc my arm made on what you might call the downswing was useful for creating the part where a tree trunk turns into the beginnings of a root system and begins to spread before ducking underground as an anchor.

The upswing arc was less good at this point. it meant that the tree was starting to bulge after about shoulder height unless I consciously repositioned or was more measured, less fluid. I guess that's the problem when you're trying to build something that is independent of human scale in a completely human-scale-centric environment. It was actually easier to step inside the trunk and try to create it from the inside, although there was a curious element of resistance from my brain on that score. Apparently brains aren't massively used to clipping through objects with your body - who knew?

I started to use that top part of my arm's sweep to add swaths of leaves using the leaf brush (although there's only one type of foliage so only one type of tree which you can create this way).

I stuck to smaller sweeps for the leaves, though. I was experimenting with how to create a sense of light that isn't reliant on the ambient light that the skyscape seemed to be offering. To that end I was adding texture by using lighter leaves in some places and darker in others, augmenting the effect of the in-game light and shadows so there was depth to the tree. I also started playing with the size of the leaves to add some kind of illusion of natural variation and growth patterns.

I'm not sure what would then happen if the light source changed - whether the tree would look bizarre, or whether your brain would happily pick one element like colour or size to focus on as it tried to interpret the tree as a 3D object.

I added grass using the coarse brush because if you make little upwards strokes you end up with what look like blades of grass from a distance. It looked promising but I wasn't sure where to go from there. I tried adding a mushroom or two but one of the RPS Vive base stations is malfunctioning so fine detail is really hard as the controller will suddenly glitch out, thinking it's suddenly a foot or two in another direction. In the end I gave up on tiny detail that wasn't grass or the odd fallen leaf and deleted the weird mushroom-intended splatters.

I wanted to add more loose detail further up but I'm really short. I considered blindly feeling for the chair in the corner of the room and climbing it in order to add further branches and foliage. But one of the other fun things about our misfiring base station is that occasionally it seems to cause the virtual reality space inside Tilt Brush to just lurch to the side, tilting until it's at 90 degrees to the horizontal. I mean, I know it's called TILT Brush but that's ridiculous!

It's hard enough to cope with that while standing on solid ground, closing your eyes and hoping the virtual room stops spinning. I figured if it happened when I was on top of a chair in an empty house I was asking to become the first cautionary tale of the Vive.

Anyway, this is the result!

After that I checked out other people's creations via the showcase gallery. My favourite is Parakeets by Tristan Reidford which is the image in the header. It's one of those demonstrations which is both lovely to look at and also inspires you to think about how to use some of the tools which initially seem flashy. You can't see it here but the parakeets have a few feathers that are made from the brush type which flashes different rainbow colours and makes the birds seem more alive.

Here they are in one of the other kinds of gif you can generate in-game - they're a kind of variation on those fake-3D wiggle stereoscopy ones:

Having seen how well this version of foliage works I'm wondering whether to go back and try to replace my leaf brush effect with something stylised and off my own making...

*Actually it was a redelivery which was part of the Saga of the Kiwi Fruit where the initial delivery had been unable to deliver 5 golden kiwi fruit so had substituted 4 golden kiwi fruit. To my mind that is actually a reduction and not a substitution. Even more of a reduction when you consider that actually they never delivered the bag with the kiwi fruit at all. Also missing was a sieve, which I guess is largely composed of holes and air when you think about it so you could argue that at least half of the sieve had been delivered. Anyway, after a phonecall or three I was expecting redelivery of the missing items, although five golden kiwis was still not going to happen. Instead I was now expecting eight. They arrived without further incident but are green and not golden. I have long since stopped caring about kiwis.

I do, however, suspect I have a fruit curse. Last time I did an online shop I ordered frozen mango and the order arrived but with a sad note telling me that there was no frozen mango and that Sainsbury's had been unable to find anything suitable to substitute. I nearly phoned them up to have a helpful conversation about how things go from being not frozen to frozen and that maybe they could have sent a room temperature mango and let me worry about the transformative process.

Why am I telling you this?

Read this next